UPDATED at 3:45 P.M. EDT on 2020-09-23
Members of Lao Christian communities are now working with central government officials to inform rural authorities of a law protecting the evangelical church in areas where harassment of Christians continues, Lao sources say.
The Law on the Evangelical Church, approved and signed into law on Dec. 19, 2019, allows Lao Christians the right to conduct services and preach throughout the country and to maintain contacts with believers in other countries. Lao churches must fund their own operations, however, and must obey other Lao laws, rules, and regulations.
To make the law more widely known, church members working in cooperation with the Interior Ministry and the Lao Front for National Construction held a seminar on Sept. 16 in the central province of Bolikhamxay, a church member in the province told RFA’s Lao Service next day.
Only Christians living in the capital Vientiane and in other large cities were formerly acknowledged and respected by the general public, RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity for reasons of personal safety.
“But those living in rural areas were considered ‘bad elements’ by other residents and by village authorities. Many Christians were abused, reeducated, evicted from their villages, arrested, and jailed--mainly because the local authorities did not understand Christians.”
“Now we hope that these meetings will improve understanding between the authorities and Christians,” he said.
Seminars were also held last week in Bokeo and Savannakhet provinces, with similar meetings planned for other parts of the country in the near future, sources said.
“The government has officially approved this law,” a Christian pastor in Bolikhamxay said, also speaking on condition he not be named. “At the meeting, we explained the law to the representatives of local authorities, and these representatives will pass the information along to other local officials, including authorities in the villages.”
“Before, we had a lot of problems. But now things will start to improve because local authorities and the general public everywhere are being made aware of the law,” another local Christian said, while another church member voiced the hope that Christians will now have “more rights and fewer restrictions and limitations.”
Laos’ new law will be beneficial for the country’s Christians when it is more widely known, an official responsible for religious affairs in Savannakhet said.
“Once it is understood, there will be less mistreatment of Christians because, like any other law, it will have to be respected,” he said.
Reached for comment, officials at the Ministry of Interior declined to speak to RFA.
Cases of abuse still seen
Though improvements in religious freedom conditions were observed in Laos last year, cases of abuse were still seen in remote rural areas, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a report released in May.
“In recent years, the number of people arrested or detained for their religious practices has decreased,” USCIRF said, adding 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 told RFA in an earlier report.
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, with no official explanation for his arrest ever released.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.
A previous version of this story incorrectly said pastor Sithon Thipavong had been sentenced.