Wednesday, September 16, 2009

022. Laos: persecution of 'imported religion'

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 022 | Wed 16 Sep 2009

By Elizabeth Kendal

Since around 1950 Laos has been torn between pro- and anti-Communist forces. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, ethnic minorities in both Vietnam and Laos sided with US troops in the fight against Communist forces across Indo-China. After the Communist victory, some two-thirds of Laos' Christian population fled the country. Since 1975 Laos has been ruled by the communist Lao People's Revolutionary Party. During the early 1990s Laos moved towards a
more market-based economy, necessitating greater openness and global engagement. However, by 1996 it was applying the brakes, fearing that the regime's hold on power was being threatened. Increased openness had led to a rise in social unrest, with Laotians protesting government repression and corruption. Human rights abuses soared as the authorities cracked down, reining in dissent.

In October 1998, the US Government passed its International Freedom from Religious Persecution (IFRP) Act that tied religious freedom to foreign policy. At that time, religious persecution in Laos was severe and torture routine. However, as a desperately poor country without wealthy powerful friends, Laos could not ignore the US IFRP Act. So the regime began tentatively reforming its religious policy to avoid sanctions and secure trade agreements. By 2005 the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was able to drop Laos from its Watch List. However, the situation has swung back again. Laos now has strong ties to other developing but totalitarian states including the ascendant, economic powerhouse, China. Furthermore the financial situation in America has greatly diluted its leverage, which was the power behind the IFRP Act. Over the past year, persecution has escalated so much that in May 2009 the USCIRF returned Laos to its Watch List.(See Annual Report of the USCIRF May 2009: LAOS.)

USCIRF reports that over 500 Christians around the country were pressured to renounce their faith in July 2008 alone. Christians are threatened with eviction from their villages, confiscation of livestock, denial of government identity cards, denial of education and the withholding of food from prisoners. Ethnic minority Protestants are being specifically targeted. The Communist regime abhors Protestant Christianity as an 'American import' that threatens the communist political system. Government suspicion and hostility is only heightened because it is being embraced with such joy and dedicated commitment by the ethnic minorities who have long struggled against communist repression.

The Boukham Church has endured sustained persecution over the past year. Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reports that on 3 September 2009 Lao officials arrested church elder Thao Oun, taking him from his home in Lainsai village at gunpoint. He was then detained, interrogated and terrorised for over five hours. HRWLRF writes: 'Thao Oon was charged with bringing destruction to the Lao nation and government due to his embracing of the Christian faith.' The police chief demanded that Thao Oun denounce Christianity or face eviction from his village. He also threatened Thao Oun that if word of his arrest and interrogation got out to the international community he would be put to death, adding that he wished for the death of all believers in Boukham Church. HRWLRF has gone public with the report believing that shining a global spotlight on Thao Oun's case is actually the only way now to guarantee his safety. Furthermore, the authorities are pressuring the church by denying schooling to ten of its children and denying believing families access to water, medical care and the protection of the law. Then on 5 September, the authorities arrested Thao Aom, 'a new believer of 10 months'. After three hours of police 'interrogation' Thao Aom was still refusing to renounce his faith and so was evicted from his village. On Sunday 6 September, authorities surrounded the Boukham Church and stopped believers entering for worship. (See HRWLRF Advocacy Alert No. 04/2009. 9 September 2009.)


* stir up and then bless international prayer and advocacy for Thao Oun and the Boukham Church; may police illegal abuse of authority be reined in, and may the church be encouraged, strengthened and built up as a result of God's merciful intervention.

* stir up a sense of injustice and indignation within the Lao Buddhist majority (who are spared persecution for pragmatic reasons); may voices for peace, liberty and justice arise from the most surprising places. (This would create far more pressure than anything external!)

* bless the persecuted and imprisoned Laotian believers with everything they need at this time, in particular water, health and security; may the ever-present Holy Spirit comfort and sustain them as they wait upon the Lord for justice.

[Elijah said to the woman:] For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth.' [. . .] The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah. (1 Kings 17:14-16 ESV)



Laos' Communist authorities abhor Protestant Christianity as an 'American import' that threatens the communist political system. Government suspicion and hostility is only heightened because it is being embraced with such joy and dedicated commitment by the ethnic minorities who have long struggled against communist repression. Human Rights Watch for Laos Religious Freedom is reporting severe persecution against Boukham Church. Elder Thao Oun was arrested at gunpoint on 3 September and has been threatened with death. The authorities are pressuring the believers to renounce their faith by denying them schooling for children and access to water, medical care and police protection. They also arrested a new believer named Thao Aom, and evicted him from his village when he refused to renounce Christ after three hours of 'interrogation'. Please pray for the Church and people of Laos.