A Lao Christian pastor was arrested on March 15 for conducting a religious ceremony without permission from authorities and is being held without charge or visits from his family amid measures to counter the coronavirus epidemic, RFA has learned.
Pastor Sithon Thiphavong, 34 was arrested on March 15 in the village of Kaleum Vangkae in the Chonnaburi District, of Savannakhet Province for organizing a mass service with permission, several villagers told RFA’s Lao Service.
“He was arrested for teaching religion,” a resident of the village said, confirming the arrest.
“On Sunday morning, March 15, the authorities invited him at the spot where the service took place to the village office,” said a second source, a Christian in Savannakhet Province.
“The two parties talked but couldn’t agree on anything. Then the authorities took him to the district where he’s staying,” the source said.
The Christian added that the authorities have not formally charged Sithon with any offense, nor have they allowed family members to visit him. However, family members are allowed to send him food via the authorities every day and were told that his case will be dealt with after the COVID-19 lockdown lifts in Laos, the source added.
RFA called the provincial police department, and office of the Lao Front for Construction, a government department that oversees religious affairs, but received no reply.
While one-party communist Laos’ 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, said an April 2019 report by the bipartisan U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom.
“Those Laotians who believe in Jesus Christ are arrested. Right now, we were told not to go out and they (the Christians) didn’t listen. The authorities have warned them; again they wouldn’t listen. That’s why they (he) were arrested,” a neighbor of the detained pastor told RFA on April 17.
In December 2018, four Christians and their three leaders in the Phin district of Savannakhet Province were summoned and made to undergo reeducation at the district office for celebrating Christmas without permission. They were freed after seven days.
On February 25, 14 people from three Christian families were evicted from their village in Long District in Luang Namtha Province because they refused to denounce their faith. Their houses were demolished.
The Washington-based USCIRF placed Laos on its Tier 2 Watch List for what it called continuing serious abuses of religious freedoms.“Some Lao authorities remained deeply suspicious of Christians, sometimes resulting in social exclusion, harassment, and arbitrary detention by law enforcement officials,” the USCIRF said, adding that it had received reports throughout 2018 of persecution of Christians in Savannakhet, “a province known for its religious intolerance.”
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Paul Eckert.