Christian believers in Laos remain subject to harassment by local officials in spite of an updated law protecting religious activities and constitutional guarantees of religious freedoms, sources in the one-party communist state say.
In Luang Prabang province in the country’s north, religious rights are still restricted, with officials deriding Christianity as an American import, one Christian villager told RFA’s Lao Service on Thursday.
“They say that in our village there is no Christian god, and that our ancestors were all animist,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity
“But you people believe in America’s god,” the source said he was told by one official, who added, “Don’t you remember what America did to our country?” in an apparent reference to widespread bombing carried out in Laos during the Vietnam War.
Christian villagers are also denied official help in response to complaints of wrongdoing, and are sometimes cheated out of their land, the source said.
“They say that Christians have no rights, and that no one will take care of them,” he said. “We even go to speak to the village leaders, but these are the same people who are already angry with Christians.”
Reached for comment, government officials in Luang Prabang and other provinces said that Lao Christians are protected by law and are treated no differently from the followers of other religions.
“Villagers can believe in any religion they want. Cousins, brothers, and sisters may live in the same village but follow different religions,” an official responsible for religious affairs in Luang Prabang told RFA.
“We have to limit certain activities, though, and we sometimes have to warn them that they can’t just do anything they want,” he said.
“We have no problems in this district. We give the same rights to everyone to believe in any religion they want, and if they have any problems, we solve this for them,” an official from the Lao Front for National Reconstruction in Vientiane’s Phon Hong district said.
“In our district, there are seven small churches, and an official from the province comes down once each month to talk to them and give them advice,” he said.
Warned, arrested for proselytizing
An official in Houa Panh province meanwhile said that he has never seen instances of local authorities threatening or harassing Christians because of their beliefs, but that Christians will be warned or arrested for not following the law.
“They can’t try to persuade other people to believe in their religion,” he said.
“Recently, there have been improvements in religious freedom conditions [in Laos],” the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a country update report released this month.
“In recent years, the number of people arrested or detained [in Laos] for their religious practices has decreased,” USCIRF added, noting that there were no reports in 2019 of central government authorities carrying out arrests, “although there were several cases at the local level.”
Ethnic Hmong families in Laos meanwhile remain objects of suspicion by authorities, with three families evicted from their homes and village In Luang Namtha province’s Tine Doi village earlier this year for refusing to renounce their Christian faith, sources recently told RFA.
And on March 15, Lao pastor Sithon Thipavong was arrested by local officials for conducting unspecified religious activities in Kalum Vangkhea village in Savannakhet province’s Xonbury district, and has since been sentenced to six months in prison, sources said, adding that no official explanation for his arrest has yet been released.
Reported and translated by Sidney Khotpanya for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.