Photo: Lao village (News4Christians photo)
NEW DELHI, November 27 (Morning Star News) -- In Lao villages far from the international community’s eye, Christians who refuse to take part in traditions involving worship of ancestral spirits face severe pressures.
Authorities in southern Laos recently tried to force more than 200 Christians in six villages in Savannakhet Province to convert back to traditional, ethnic religion by ordering them to take part in the rituals. None of the Christians gave in to threats of expulsion, according to Human Rights Watch for Laos Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).
Police called a meeting of three villages in Kengsaiyai village, Phin district, on Oct. 19 and ordered about 150 Christians from 31 families to take an oath and drink “sacred water” dedicated to spirits as part of the ritual, HRWLRF reported. Officials also told them to sign a document stating that they had converted back to their traditional religion and threatening to expel them from their villages if they refused.
All the Christians refused to deny Christ, and authorities have backed off, said an HRWLRF official.
“The Christians are no longer threatened with eviction if they deny participation in the occult rituals,” he told Morning Star News.
Local authorities stopped pressuring Christians after some Christian families approached the governor of Savannakhet and the Lao National Assembly office in the province, he explained.
Separately, authorities in the same district’s Vongseekaew village on Oct. 5 pressured about 50 Christians to participate in a similar ritual and profess belief in the traditional religion in order to continue living in the village. But four days later, the administrative head of the district intervened, warning police and military officials against forcing anyone to perform the ritual.
The official’s warning had no effect five miles away in Allowmai village. Police told Christians in the village that the Sept. 11 incarceration of three pastors – identified only as Bountert, Adang and Onkaew – would be extended for three years if they did not forsake Christianity.
After family members of Adang and Onkeaw approached higher officials, the three pastors were released, the HRWLRF official said. Moreover, authorities have turned away from pressuring Christians in the district to participate in the ritual, he said.
“Local officials instructed villagers to live in harmony with each other and [ensure that] occult rituals were not enforced on Christians any longer,” he said.
Christians in Seekaew village of Jutsume sub-district also have been pressured to convert back to traditional religions, HRWLRF reported. Two local officials, identified only as Bounheung and Boungong, have also threatened to demolish houses belonging to the Christians.
Origins of the Pressure
Christians in Laos often come under pressure to recant under threat of being ostracized and expelled from their communities in Laos, a single-party state ruled by the Marxist-Leninist Laos People’s Revolutionary Party. News of their plight usually reaches the outside world days or months later, if ever.
Surrounded by the mightier nations of Vietnam, China, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia, Lao authorities fear the country is vulnerable to outside influence; they require officials especially in border states to curb any dissent or activity they feel could threaten the country’s security.
Hence Christians living in rural areas, along the borders, face the brunt of official hostility. Savannakhet Province, where the latest incidents took place, shares borders with Thailand and Vietnam and is considered one of the hotbeds of persecution of Christians.
As it is believed that the United States covertly assisted anti-Communist forces in the Laotian Civil War in the 1970s, anti-U.S. sentiments remain widespread; Christians, especially evangelicals, are viewed as an “American import” and a threat to Communist rule.
Laos, which ranked 12th on Open Doors’ 2012 World Watch List of countries with the worst persecution of Christians, allows religious groups to function but with tight government control. The prime minister’s 2002 Decree on Religious Practice requires all religious institutions to register with the government. It also allows authorities to prohibit any religious activity that can cause “social division” or “chaos.”
Christians have rights on paper, but the country’s justice system is virtually non-existent for those without powerful officials on their side or those who cannot pay hefty bribes.
Of Laos’ 6.4 million people, nearly 35 percent practice traditional ethnic religions, according to Operation World. More than 57 percent of the country’s population is Buddhist, and Christians make up only 3.38 percent of the population with 217,540 adherents. Buddhism enjoys a special status in the country.
c. 2012 Morning Star News. Used with permission.
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Publication date: November 29, 2012