Three U.S. citizens held in Laos last month for handing out religious tracts were “treated well” during questioning by police, but Lao Christians still face persecution at the hands of state authorities, the missionary group to which the three belong said this week.
“Yes, they were treated well, and we appreciate that,” Eric Blievernicht, operations manager for the Wyoming-based group Vision Beyond Borders, told RFA’s Lao Service on Thursday in a brief telephone interview.
“They‘re home safe now, and they’re looking forward to continuing their ministry,” Blievernicht said.
The three volunteers—identified by their given names, Wayne, Autumn, and Joseph—were picked up by police in a scenic corner of northern Laos’ Luang Namtha province on April 8 after handing out religious materials to villagers, a policeman and a witness told RFA in an earlier report.
Authorities then seized their passports and took them to a guesthouse in the provincial capital, about 60 kms (36 miles) from where they had been arrested, but allowed them free movement of their quarters and the surrounding village, and the three were deported to Thailand 10 days later.
Throughout their period of detention, “the team was treated relatively well,” Vision Beyond Borders said in a recent statement.
“They were never hollered at, the officials never laid a hand on them, and they even provided bottled water when the team was at the [police] station,” the missionary group, which distributes bibles and recordings of religious messages around the world, said.
Speaking to RFA, Blievernight said however that Lao Christians themselves face greater difficulties every day, with Lao authorities “harassing Christians and breaking up meetings and making it difficult for them to gather.”
“So we’re continuing to pray for Laos and want to do whatever we can to support the churches there,” he said.
'Continuing serious abuses'
In a report released April 29, the bipartisan U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) placed Laos on its Tier 2 Watch List for what it called continuing serious abuses of religious freedoms.
Though the one-party communist state’s constitution “ostensibly protects its people’s inherent right to religious freedom,” regulations controlling religious observance in Laos are vaguely worded and open to interpretation by local authorities, USCIRF said.
“Some Lao authorities remained deeply suspicious of Christians, sometimes resulting in social exclusion, harassment, and arbitrary detention by law enforcement officials,” the rights group said, adding that it had received reports throughout 2018 of persecution of Christians in Savannakhet, “a province known for its religious intolerance.”
Reported by Sidney Khotpanya for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.