Third Church Seized in Months

Local officials raid a church in southern Laos as part of a wider crackdown on Christianity.

church-305.jpg A Protestant church in Vientiane.
Torbenbrinker / Wikipedia

Lao authorities have taken over the third church building in southern Savannakhet province in five months, saying church officials were not given authorization to operate the building, in a move blasted by religious rights groups.

Last week’s raid on the church in Xayburi district’s Kengweng village was led by a district Communist Party committee member, religious affairs officials and the deputy chief of police.

The action follows similar raids on a church in Dongpaiwan village in September last year and on another church in Nadeng village last month.

All three churches will be reopened as schools, local officials said.

A security official from Savannakhet province, who asked to remain anonymous, said the church seizure was authorized under Lao law.

“This was not a ‘confiscation.’ This action was taken on condition that the authorities turn [the church] into a school,” the official said.

“It is against Laos’ law regarding activities of bad intention and violates decree 92 by the prime minister. The churches at fault are in Dongpaiwan, Kengweng and Nadeng villages in Xayburi district.”

He said that reports on the church raids had been blown out of proportion.

“Websites can say anything. They say becoming modern is bad, which is not true, and they often distort facts to make them as different as sky and earth.”

A ‘trick of imperialism’

The seizure of Kengweng church reportedly followed a two-day government seminar entitled "Tricks of the Enemy" which villagers were asked to join.

Christianity is often viewed with contempt by officials in largely Buddhist but Communist-ruled Laos, and the religion has been described as a “trick of Western imperialism.”

Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) said in a statement following the raid that officials told local residents that if they wanted to use the church building they would be required to submit a formal written request to village, district, and provincial officials and be approved by each.

Church officials said they had previously applied for the right to use the building for religious services, but had been refused.

The church in Kengweng village began in 1972 with two Christian Lao families but had grown to a congregation of 25 families in recent years, comprising nearly 180 individuals. Church members said they had not previously been harassed by authorities.

Wider crackdown

HRWLRF called the raid “part of a wider effort to restrict religious freedom and a wider crackdown on Christian gathering for worship.”

“Not only have the authorities taken over church property, they are also restricting worship gathering, even in homes. Christians who have gathered together to conduct worship for almost 40 years now have to obtain approval for each of these such regular Sunday morning gathering.”

The group said that despite a clause in the Lao constitution which guarantees the right to religious freedom and assembly, authorities “have refused to recognize the existence of Christians and churches in Savannakhet province other than seven [buildings].”

"The remaining 22 church buildings [in Savannakhet] are at risk of also being confiscated by Lao authorities at any time.”

HRWLRF called on the Lao government to respect the Lao constitution and end what it called the “illegal” takeover of church buildings because Kengweng church and others have the “right to exist” and “practice their religious beliefs.”

The group called on the Lao authorities to return the Kengweng church building to Christians “so that they can enjoy religious freedom as guaranteed to them.”

The population of Laos—some 6.5 million people—is 67 percent Buddhist and two percent Christian.

Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Bounchanh Mouangkham. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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