UPDATED at 7 P.M. EDT on 2019-04-12
Lao authorities have arrested three U.S. citizens in Luang Namtha province’s Sing district for distributing bibles and other evangelistic materials, a Christian organization in the United States told RFA’s Lao Service on Friday.
Identified by their organization only by their given names, Wayne, Autumn and Joseph are believed to have been detained in a guesthouse since Monday, after visiting villages in northern Laos to hand out the materials.
“It appears that the interrogations have been going slowly. [Police] brought them into a room and said they would be back in 10 minutes, then they were gone for 4-5 hours,” said Eric Blievernicht, Operations Manager of Vision Beyond Borders in an interview with RFA.
“Our concern now, if we don’t get them released soon in the next day or so, is that they will be held over the New Year,” he said, referring to the traditional New Year observed in Southeast Asia, which falls on April 13, with celebrations running for more days.
Blievernicht said he was aware that the U.S. embassy in Laos has been notified and has gotten involved. He also said that only the three Americans were detained and no Laotians were.
An official of the Luang Namtha police department confirmed that the three were arrested but denied they are being detained.
“What we know about these three individuals is that they are not detained. Their passports have just been confiscated,” said the official.
A Local Christian group is trying to help the three.
“We just found out about this and we’re traveling to Luang Namtha province to help these three Americans,” said the leader of a church in Vientiane Capital, requesting anonymity.
RFA contacted the U.S. Embassy in Laos but an official declined to comment on the matter.
But a State Department official said late on Friday that “We can confirm the temporary detention and subsequent release of three U.S. citizens in Luang Namtha, Laos. We take seriously our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are providing all appropriate consular services.”
RFA also attempted to contact the press department of the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but phone calls went unanswered.
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.”
In December, seven Lao Christians were arrested for attending an ‘illegal’ church service. They were 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 and translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.