Local authorities in two villages in a central Lao province have violated the rights of Christians by threatening to jail those who continue to practice their religion after banning their activities last month, a source inside the country said.
Authorities from the villages of Nhang and Don Keo in Nakai district, Khammouane province, have been threatening the Christians since the beginning of July, seizing bibles from them on August 13 and forbidding them to read passages from the holy book and holding religious ceremonies, the source said.
One village chief surnamed Sone and four police officers detained four local Christians and took them to the Nakai district police station where an officer named Phonxay threatened to put them in jail unless they signed a document recanting their beliefs, he told RFA’s Lao Service via email.
The Christians initially refused to sign the document, but asked for more time to consider the agreement after police intimidated them for two hours, he said.
Police agreed to give them until Wednesday to sign the document or throw them in jail, he said.
The 22 Christians who live in Nhang and the 32 who live in Don Keo have been practicing their faith since 2013, the source said.
When contacted by RFA, an officer at the Nakai district police station said he was not aware of the incident, and added that there was no officer by the name of Phonxay.
District governor Liengkham Phaengouthai, however, told RFA that he had heard about the incident, but could not determine whether it was real or a rumor because residents are allowed to believe in any religion as long as they follow relevant regulations.
Christians make up about 1.5 percent of Laos’ predominantly Buddhist population of nearly 7 million in three main churches — the Lao Evangelical Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church and Roman Catholic Church.
Christianity is a threat
Laos’ communist government permits the practice of Christianity, but sees it as a threat because of the religion’s traditional opposition to communism. As a result, authorities have harassed, arrested and evicted Christians — especially evangelical Christians — from their homes.
“[I] don’t know if it is true or not,” Liengkham said. “We heard about this unofficially. The constitution allows people to believe or not believe in religion, but it doesn’t allow them to proselytize or engage in any behavior affecting government policy.”
Many Christians live in several villages in the district, and in the past there have been conflicts between them and the authorities because they conducted religious activities that were inconsistent with the country’s constitution, he said.
But since then, the conflicts have been resolved, he added.
Authorities in Khammouane province also arrested a Christian leader and fellow believer on Tuesday in Nong-hang Village, Khounkham district, and charged them with spreading the Christian religion, according to a report by BosNewsLife, an online news service that covers persecuted Christians.
Police apprehended the Christians after storming the home of a family the pair was visiting, the report said.
Khounkham district police have been monitoring the development of Christianity in the area since 2008 and intending to suppress it, it said.
Laos’ constitution and some laws and policies protect religious freedom, while others restrict the right in practice.
The Prime Minister’s Decree on Religious Practice, known as Decree 92, which was issued in 2002, is the main legal document that defines rules for religious practice and institutionalizes the government’s role as the final decision maker regarding permissible religious activities.
Authorities at the provincial and district levels, however, sometimes use the decree’s various conditions to restrict certain aspects of religious practice.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Bounchanh Mouangkham. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.