Lao authorities on Tuesday denied reports that police detained a group of Christians for organizing an “illegal religious activity” over the weekend, amidst a recent crackdown on the religion in the country’s south.
According to fellow worshipers in Savannakhet province’s Ad-Saphanthong district, the group of five Lao Christians, two men and three women, were detained and charged Sunday because their church, located in Boukham village, was not registered with religious officials.
But a village security official told RFA that there had been no detention and that there are no Christians in his district.
“No, we have not arrested anybody. The district authorities never arrested anybody,” the official said.
“There are no Christians in our district, only Buddhists. All residents in Boukham village are Buddhists. No Christians were arrested.”
A Christian involved in the incident said that the security guard’s statement was false and that the group attending services on Sunday had been detained for two hours before being forced to sign a pledge that they would no longer attend worship gatherings.
“[The Christians] came to worship God on Sunday—some came here from the countryside and worshipped together,” the witness said.
“[The authorities] didn’t want us to hold any services. They arrested and detained us from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and then forced us to sign a ‘Never Come Again’ document.”
Boukham village was the scene of an earlier arrest in which seven Christian leaders were detained during pre-Christmas services in December last year after leading some 200 followers in prayer.
The prayers triggered an angry response from neighbors who pelted the group with stones when the worshipers refused to end their session.
The seven leaders were released after paying a fine.
Christianity is often viewed with contempt by officials in largely Buddhist but Communist-ruled Laos, and the religion has been described as a “trick of Western imperialism.”
The population of Laos—some 6.5 million people—is 67 percent Buddhist and two percent Christian.
Last week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) maintained Laos on its watch list for the world’s worst religious freedom offenders in 2012 based on “serious religious freedom abuses” which, the commission said, continued during the past year.
The congressional watchdog said that while religious freedom conditions have improved for the majority Buddhist groups and for Christians, Muslims, and Bahaists living in urban areas, the government restricted religious practices through its legal codes and religious rights abuses continued in some rural areas.
USCIRF documented violations by rural officials against Protestants including detentions, surveillance, harassment, property confiscations, forced relocations, and forced renunciations of faith.
Lao authorities took over another church building in Savannakhet province in February, saying church officials were not given authorization to operate the building, in a move blasted by religious rights groups.
The raid on the church in Xayburi district’s Kengweng village was led by a district Communist Party committee member, religious affairs officials, and the deputy chief of police.
The action followed similar raids on a church in Dongpaiwan village in September last year and on another church in Nadeng village last month.
All three churches will be reopened as schools, local officials said.
Reported by Krongkran Koyanakhul for RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.