05/22/2014, 00.00
LAOS - EUROPEAN UNION

Eleven Christians arrested for praying are ignored by Laos-EU talks

In Savannakhet province, 11 Laotian Christians arrested for meeting at an "unauthorised" location remain in custody. CSW calls on EU leaders to raise the issue of religious freedom with the Asian country. Violations of religious freedom overshadow talks.

Vientiane (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Eleven Christians detained in Savannakhet Province on 11 May are still in prison after they were arrested for meeting at an unauthorised location, this according to human rights agency Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

Another 12, including women and teenagers, were released after signing a statement agreeing not to meet at that location again.

News about such continuing anti-Christian abuses in the Southeast Asian country comes as the EU's regular dialogue with Laos on human rights and good governance gets underway in Brussels this week.

In a press release, the CSW urges the EU delegation to raise the issue of freedom of religion or belief when it meets Laotian officials.

The 23 Christians belong to a church in Paksong Village in Songkhone District, in south-central Laos. Since 2012, they have been banned from holding church services.

The clergyman was arrested and coerced into signing a statement saying that his church would stop prayer meetings.

According to Human Rights Watch for Laos Religious Freedom (HRWLRF), the authorities, including the new village chief, claimed that local Christians did not receive permission to hold worship services. However, the Christians claimed they received permission from the former village chief approximately a year before.

Now with the arrest of 23 Christians, the authorities want to use the lack of permit as an excuse in order to prevent believers from finding a "new" place to meet and pray.

The latter insists however that they had been meeting on a regular basis for more than six years, and until now, they have not had any problems.

Over the years, Laotian authorities have reduced the number of prisoners held for their religious beliefs. Still, cases like that in Savannakhet Province are not uncommon.

CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas welcomed talks between the EU and Laos on human rights and good governance, but warned that attacks against religious freedom cast a shadow over them.

In view of this, he called on Laotian authorities to release the detained Christians and ensure that Christians can practice their faith without fear of arrest.

When the Communists took over in 1975, they expelled foreign missionaries and placed the country's Christian minority under strict controls. Religious practice has been restricted ever since.

Most Laotians (67 per cent) are Buddhist out of six million people. Christians make up about 2 per cent - of these Catholics are 0.7 per cent.

Protestants are especially targeted for religious persecution.

AsiaNews has covered similar cases in the past, including farmers deprived of food for the faith as well as clergymen arrested for their activities.

Since April 2011, things got progressively worse after protests by Hmong groups were violently suppressed.

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