Three U.S. citizens held in Laos since last week for “disseminating religion” without government approval had their passports seized and are being kept in a guesthouse in the provincial capital of Luang Namtha, RFA’s Lao Service learned from a local police officer on Tuesday.
Identified by their organization, Vision Beyond Borders, only by their given names, Wayne, Autumn and Joseph were picked up by police in the Sing district of Luang Namtha province on April 8, after handing out religious materials to villagers, a district policeman and a witness told RFA.
“They didn’t get approval from the relevant departments. Their activity of disseminating religion was wrong,” the Sing district policeman said.
“Usually this kind of activity must go through many steps to get approval. You can’t do whatever you want,” said the officer.
A villager told RFA that he had observed three foreigners distributing written materials to villagers. Shortly afterward, five police officers from Sing district came and picked them up and they were taken away in a police car, he said.
Although it initially appeared that the three were released without their passports to a local guesthouse in the Sing district, the police officer said they were taken to the provincial capital, the town of Luang Namtha, on the day they were apprehended.
“After some interrogation, we sent them to the province because this case is a big case,” the officer told RFA.
Luang Namtha is about 60 kms (36 miles) southeast of Sing, a town that lies near the Lao borders with Myanmar and China.
Eric Blievernicht, Operations Manager of Vision Beyond Borders, confirmed the policeman’s account of their movements in an email exchange with RFA.
“They were first detained in the village, then transferred to police headquarters in Luang Namtha, and then released to the guesthouse after confiscating passports,” he wrote.
“So far as I know today has been quiet with no new developments,” added Blievernicht.
On Monday, he told RFA he was concerned that the three church members would get caught up in the week-long Lao New Year holiday, when offices are closed and very little official business is conducted.
A State Department spokesman told RFA on Tuesday “We can confirm the temporary detention and subsequent release from custody of three U.S. citizens in Luang Namtha, Laos.”
The Casper, Wyoming-based Vision Beyond Borders says on its website that it has “carried over 1 million Bibles and 15,000 hand-wind tape players containing the Gospel into closed countries."
"With donors' support, we have also provided for over 800 children (and) nearly 200 native pastors in Gospel-resistant nations," said the group. It also has administered humanitarian aid and medical care to refugees from Burma, Syria, and Iraq, and provides vegetable seed packets to poor villages.
While the constitution of Communist-run Laos technically protects freedom of religion, conflicts between Christians and local authorities often flare up because authorities in the traditionally Buddhist nation consider Christianity a “foreign religion.”
Asked whether missionary activities were permitted in Laos, an official of the Phin district in Savannakhet Province in southern Laos told RFA: “You have to respect the authorities. For example, the Christians have to contact us before having any celebration.”
In December, seven Lao Christians were arrested for attending an ‘illegal’ church service. They were later allowed to return home.
In a 2017 report, the U.S. State Department said that Lao local authorities often arrested or detained members of minority religions during the year, with a district-level official in Houaphan province expelling 26 Hmong Christians from their village, advising them they could return only if they renounced their faith.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.