12/20/2012 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – With scant means of communication, Christians in villages of Laos are rarely able to tell the world about the pressures they go through because of their faith. Ruling communists, who maintain a monopoly of political power but with a sense of vulnerability, view Christian growth as a threat to their regime, and seek to force believers to return to traditional faiths.
Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF), based out of Tennessee in the United States, recently highlighted a spate of such incidents. Now with Christmas approaching, persecution might rise.
In just one province of Savannakhet in southern Laos, over 200 believers from six villages were pressured to participate in traditional rituals involving worship of ancestral spirits in October. Village heads, local officials, and in some cases even police, came together and threatened to expel the Christians from their villages if they did not partake of the ritual, which would indicate their decision to return to their “original” animist religion.
In Allowmai village, police even blackmailed Christians, saying if they did not leave Christianity, the jail term of three pastors from their village - identified as Bountert, Adang and Onkaew, and who had been arrested on Sept. 11 - would be extended for three more years.
HRWLRF director Sirikoon Prasertsee later told Morning Star News that none of the Christians gave in to the demands of the authorities, and the Governor of Savannakhet and the Lao National Assembly office came to their rescue after being apprised of their plight.
Higher authorities in Laos, a single-party communist state, would normally not listen to Christians – when they do, they do it out of fear of creating bad international reputation, especially after the United States gave Laos the (non-permanent) normal trade status in 2004 to break the ice. Besides, the nation’s judiciary and police are highly corrupt, and Christians from rural areas are hardly able to report incidents.
While authorities in Laos seek to curtail civil freedoms of all citizens, Christians in particular are seen as a major threat. Since the United States was accused of assisting the Laotian Civil War in the 1970s, the ruling communist party remains weary of American influence - evangelical Christianity is associated with the United States.
The majority of the 7 million people in Laos follow Buddhism, which enjoys a special status in the country. Christians, who are a key target of the regime, number about 150,000, according to conservative estimates.
A 2002 decree (known as Decree 92) makes registration with the government mandatory for all religious groups. The rule is that if a church wants to function, it should come under the government’s tight control and regulation. The decree also bans religious activities that can cause “social division” or “chaos” – a provision which authorities routinely use to crack down on churches.
Last Christmas season, officials threatened to destroy a Protestant church in Natoo village in Savannakhet province’s Palansai district and to arrest its leaders unless they renounced their faith. This action came soon after police in nearby Boukham village placed eight Protestant leaders in wooden stocks until they paid a fine for organizing a large, unauthorized Christmas celebration, according to the 2012 country report on Laos released by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“Serious religious freedom abuses continue in Laos. The Lao government restricts religious practice through its legal code and has not curtailed religious freedom abuses in some rural areas,” the report said.
The Commission, which put Laos on its Watch List for 2012, also noted that provincial officials continue to violate the freedom of religion of ethnic minority Protestants through detentions, surveillance, harassment, property confiscations, forced relocations, and forced renunciations of faith.
Rural Christians of Laos, who are brave while being childlike in their faith and devotion to Jesus, need our prayers. They deserve to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and have the freedom to practise their faith, along with Christians from the rest of the world.
Ryan Morgan, a Regional Manager with International Christian Concern said, “For too long now the Lao government has looked the other way as local and provincial authorities persecute the Christian minority. No one should be threatened with arrest or expulsion from their home simply because of their religious beliefs, yet this happens far too often in rural parts of the country far from the eyes of the international media. As a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to manifest one’s religion, we call on the government in Vientiane to immediately take action against any local or provincial authority using their power against the Christian minority.”