Lao Pastor Held For Disrupting ‘Unity’ Must be Freed: Rights Groups

2021-03-29
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Lao Pastor Held For Disrupting ‘Unity’ Must be Freed: Rights Groups Pastor Sithon Thippavong is shown at a Christian wedding ceremony in Savannakhet province in a September 2018 photo.
Photo sent by family member

A Christian leader held for more than a year in the southern province of Savannakhet in violation of a Lao law protecting religious practice must be immediately released from custody, rights groups and church members say.

Pastor Sithon Thippavong, 34, began preaching Christianity to villagers in Savannaket’s Xonnaboury district in 2011 and was arrested on March 15, 2020 for organizing religious services without authorities’ permission.

“The court is going to try Pastor Sithon next week. Everyone is waiting to see whether he will be found guilty or not,” a Christian living in Xonnaboury told RFA’s Lao Service this week, requesting anonymity for reasons of safety.

A close friend of the Christian leader meanwhile voiced concern for the pastor and his wife and children, adding, “He is a good person, and we would like to see this matter solved with due process and justice."

Speaking to RFA on March 25, Phil Robertson—Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch for the Asia-Pacific Region—called Sithon’s continued detention a “serious human rights violation.”

“In fact, the Lao authorities should release Pastor Sithon and apologize for arresting and detaining him,” Robertson said. “In general, the authorities should not violate the rights and freedom of those who believe in religion.”

Bounthone Chanthalavong-Weise, president of the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos, said that her group on March 18 reported Sithon’s arrest and “other violations of human rights in the Lao PDR [People’s Democratic Republic] to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.”

“We have asked that agency to pressure the Lao government to release the pastor,” Bounthone said.

“We are deeply concerned for the welfare of Pastor Thippavong,” added Eric Blievernicht, Operations Manager for the U.S.-based Christian organization Vision Beyond Borders. “We are also disturbed by his extra-judicial  imprisonment by the Lao government, and are concerned he is not being treated well or fairly by his jailers.”

“We ask for prayers for Pastor Thippavong and call upon the Lao government to release him and respect religious liberty for all its citizens,” he said.

The Lao Evangelical Church in the capital Vientiane also voiced concern, asking its followers in Savannakhet to “closely follow the case.”

Reached for comment, an official at the Savannakhet Province Prosecutor’s Office said that Sithon had been accused of undermining social and cultural “unity” by his preaching, adding, “Our office has received all necessary documents and is still in the process of sending the case to court.”

Disrespect, discrimination

The Law on the Evangelical Church, approved and signed into law in Laos on Dec. 19, 2019, allows Lao Christians the right to conduct service and preach throughout the country and to maintain contacts with believers in other countries.

But in practice, the law seems to apply only in the capital Vientiane and in other large cities, while Christians in the rural areas remain subject to disrespect by the general public and discrimination at the hands of local authorities, sources say.

Four Lao Christians and three Christian leaders were detained for seven days in 2018 in Nakhanong village in Savannkhet’s Phin district for celebrating Christmas without permission.

And in October, authorities in Saravan province’s Ta Oy district, in the country’s south, evicted seven Christians and destroyed their homes when they would not renounce their faith—a clear violation of the law.

The Christians then spent two months living rough in the forest, but were allowed to return to their village in December though they have been forbidden from rebuilding their homes.

Though improvements in religious freedom conditions were observed in Laos in 2019, 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 2020.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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