Three U.S. citizens arrested in northern Laos last week for distributing bibles and other evangelistic materials are free from police custody, but confined to a guest house and the surrounding village while a lengthy holiday has slowed talks on their case, a U.S.-based Christian organization told RFA’s Lao Service Monday.
Identified by their organization, Vision Beyond Borders, only by their given names, Wayne, Autumn and Joseph have been detained in a guesthouse in Luang Namtha province since April 8, after visiting villages in northern Laos to hand out the materials.
Eric Blievernicht, Operations Manager of Vision Beyond Borders, told RFA the three had surrendered their passports to authorities but can walk out of the guesthouse and around the village now.
He said he has not spoken directly to the three out of concern that authorities will listen to phone calls, but has spoken to their stateside family members.
A big concern, Blievernicht said, was that the three U.S. citizens been caught up in the Lao New Year holiday, when offices are closed and very little official business is conducted, and might have to wait a week or more.
An official of the Luang Namtha police department confirmed on April 12 that the three were arrested but denied they were being detained—apparently a reference to their placement in a guest house.
A State Department official on April 12 confirmed “the temporary detention and subsequent release of three U.S. citizens in Luang Namtha, Laos” and said the department was “providing all appropriate consular services.”
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 by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.