Authorities in central Laos have detained eight Christian leaders after neighbors violently protested over their pre-Christmas prayers, complaining they were noisy.
Formal charges have not been slapped on them since they were detained last week by police after leading some 200 Christians in prayer in Savannakhet province’s Boukham village.
The prayers triggered an angry response from neighbors who pelted the group with stones when the worshippers refused to end their session.
Representatives from the Savannakhet provincial branch of the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC)—the only Protestant group recognized by the communist government—were able to negotiate the release of one of the leaders after he paid a substantial fine two days after the detention.
A local Christian woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said that authorities still had not offered a reason for detaining the group.
“All eight were detained. And while one was released, the other seven remain in custody,” she told RFA.
“There has been no investigation and authorities offered no explanation, except that they were loud.”
She said that while the detainees have not been physically abused, they have been subjected to difficult conditions in custody.
“They are currently in wooden stocks at all times, even in their cell. There has been no physical abuse, but they are cuffed and have not been allowed to leave the small room they have been confined to for the past week.”
Wooden stocks are commonly used to restrain people in Lao prisons and detention centers.
The eight Christian leaders secured permission to hold the Dec. 16 prayer session from the Boukham village chief and invited him to attend the event, according to Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF). The chief stayed for the Christmas meal, but left before the sermon began.
Following the sermon, at around 9 p.m., village security forces entered the building, secured the eight leaders, and marched them to the Boukham government headquarters, where they were detained without charge, the religious watchdog said in a statement.
“While they were held without formal charges, it is quite clear that they were arrested for gathering people for worship,” Compass Direct News quoted an HRWLRF spokesman as saying.
The woman who spoke to RFA said that worshippers continued their prayer session despite a hail of rocks, leading authorities to take them away, but that the group had done nothing wrong.
“They just want us to surrender and to stop worshipping. We want justice—we’ve done nothing wrong,” she said.
“We’ve been worshipping God for years at Christmas time.”
According to the woman, families have been allowed to bring blankets and personal effects for the detainees.
Provincial and Foreign Ministry officials told RFA that they were unaware of the detention and after receiving information about the incident said all relevant authorities were unavailable for comment.
On Sunday, LEC representatives negotiated the release of one of the detainees, Kingnamsom of the Tongsamakee church in Savannakhet city, after paying a fine of 1 million kip (U.S. $123) to the village chief. The average monthly wage for an unskilled worker in Savannakhet province is about U.S. $40.
The same day, the Boukham village chief told the detainees they were in violation of the traditional cult of the village by having gathered for a Christian worship service, which residents believe could upset spirits responsible for the fertility of the local farmland, according to HRWLRF.
The chief asked the detainees to admit their guilt and agree not to worship in the village, but all seven refused, the religious rights group said.
HRWLRF identified the seven other detainees as Sompong, Ma and Kaithong—the only female detainee—all from Boukham village church; Oun from Dansai village church; Puphet from Donpalai village church; Wanta from Liansai village church and Kai from Nonsomboon village church.
Lao Christians often celebrate Christmas either before or after Dec. 25 in order to avoid drawing the attention of authorities, according to Compass Direct News.
Reported by Bounchanh Mouangkham for RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.