UPDATED at 3.45 P.M. EDT on 2019-04-18
Three U.S. citizens held in Laos since last week on suspicion of disseminating bibles and Christian material without government approval have been released and deported to neighboring Thailand on Thursday, their organization told RFA’s Lao Service.
The volunteers for the Wyoming-based Vision Beyond Borders--identified only by their given names, Wayne, Autumn and Joseph--were picked up by police in a scenic corner of northern Laos’ Luang Namtha province on April 8, after handing out religious materials to villagers, a policeman and a witness told RFA.
The three had their passports seized and were being kept in a guesthouse in the provincial capital of Luang Namtha, 60 kms (36 miles) from where they were arrested.
“We have just received word that Wayne, Autumn, and Joseph, our volunteers who were detained in Laos from April 8, have been deported and crossed the border into Thailand a few minutes ago,” Eric Blievernicht, operations manager of Vision Beyond Borders, told RFA by e-mail.
“Our prayers for their release and that they might be home for Easter are being answered,” he wrote. Easter falls on Sunday, April 21.
A State Department spokesman in Washington issued a statement saying "We can confirm the deportation of three U.S. citizens from Laos. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment."
The trio crossed by land to Thailand and were scheduled to spend the night in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, before making their way by rail to Bangkok, said Blievernicht. The flight arrangements for their return to the United States were not immediately available.
The detention of the three, who were able to move about the guesthouse and surrounding village, played out as Laos observed the traditional New Year holiday and government offices were closed, slowing down negotiations on their fate.
Speaking to RFA on Tuesday, a police officer from Sing district said the three “didn’t get approval from the relevant departments. Their activity of disseminating religion was wrong.”
“Usually this kind of activity must go through many steps to get approval. You can’t do whatever you want,” said the officer.
The Casper, Wyoming-based Vision Beyond Borders says on its website that it has “carried over 1 million Bibles and 15,000 hand-wind tape players containing the Gospel into closed countries."
"With donors' support, we have also provided for over 800 children (and) nearly 200 native pastors in Gospel-resistant nations," said the group. It also has administered humanitarian aid and medical care to refugees from Burma, Syria, and Iraq, and provides vegetable seed packets to poor villages.
While the constitution of Communist-run Laos technically protects freedom of religion, conflicts between Christians and local authorities often flare up because authorities in the traditionally Buddhist nation consider Christianity a “foreign religion.”
“Lao government laws and policies that regulate peaceful religious practice and expression are unnecessarily bureaucratic, vaguely worded, and selectively enforced," Kristina Arriaga, vice chair of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, said in an emailed statement.
Todd Nettleton, spokesman for the Voice of the Martyrs USA, said that with bibles available in Laos only at government-sanctioned churches, "a group from America that is just freely distributing Christian materials is going to get the attention of the Lao authorities.”
"A lot of the persecution that happens, happens at the village level. If somebody becomes a Christian, the other people in the village may say ‘we don’t want any Christians in our village because that might anger the spirits of our ancestors, so if you’re going to be a Christian, you’re going to have to leave,'" he told RFA.
In December, seven Lao Christians were arrested for attending an ‘illegal’ church service. They were later allowed to return home.
In a 2017 report, the U.S. State Department said that Lao local authorities often arrested or detained members of minority religions during the year, with a district-level official in Houaphan province expelling 26 Hmong Christians from their village, advising them they could return only if they renounced their faith.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.