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WASHINGTON, June 14, 2003--Authorities in the Xaisomboun Special Zone in northern Laos have ordered three local Christian churches to close, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports. The three churches mainly comprise members of the Hmong ethnic minority who have been resettled from the Lao highlands.

The churches are located in Hin Houa Seua, Hang Keng, and Pha Poun villages, sources who asked to remain anonymous told RFA's Lao service. The date the order was issued remained unclear, but it requires all three churches to "close and cease all activities by the end of this year."

The order comes in the midst of what appears to be an escalating religious crackdown in Laos, mainly in the southern part of the country. Xaisomboun is in the north. No comment was immediately available from Lao officials, who generally attribute such crackdowns to over-zealous local officials.

Between May 17-27, Savannakhet Province authorities arrested 20 Christians who had refused to renounce their faith. All 20 Christians belong to the Bru ethnic minority. In late March, Savannakhet authorities also evicted three Christian families from their homes in Muang Phine district for refusing to renounce their beliefs.

A State Department official cited reports that Christians in Luang Prabang and elsewhere still face pressure to renounce their faith-�or face eviction or detention. He also warned that such practices could hinder support in Washington for extending normal trade terms to the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.

President George W. Bush's administration openly favors extending Normal Trade Relations (NTR)--formerly known as Most Favored Nation trade status--to Laos. Human rights groups and some members of Congress oppose NTR for Laos, however, citing widespread human rights abuses there.

The State Department�s most recent International Religious Freedom Report excluded Laos from its list of Countries of Particular Concern. But�-along with its 2002 report on human rights practices around the world�-it described Laos�s record on religious freedom as "poor."

The Lao Constitution provides for freedom of religion but stipulates that the state should play an active role in managing the country's religious affairs.

"The [Lao] Government's human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit serious abuses," according to the 2002 Human Rights Report, issued in March of this year. "The Government continued to restrict freedom of religion, and police and provincial authorities arrested and detained more than 60 members of Christian churches, with four members of religious communities in custody or incarcerated for their religious beliefs at year's end."

The report added that: "During the year, government authorities arrested and detained more than 60 Christians, at times holding them in custody for months. In several cases, the prisoners were handcuffed, detained in leg chains and stocks, and subjected to psychological pressure. At least one detainee was severely beaten while in detention."

RFA broadcasts news and information to Asian listeners who lack regular access to full and balanced reporting in their domestic media. Through its broadcasts and call-in programs, RFA aims to fill a critical gap in the lives of people across Asia. Created by Congress in 1994 and incorporated in 1996, RFA currently broadcasts in Burmese, Cantonese, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Mandarin, the Wu dialect, Vietnamese, Tibetan (Uke, Amdo, and Kham), and Uyghur. It adheres to the highest standards of journalism and aims to exemplify accuracy, balance, and fairness in its editorial content. #####


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