04/05/2012, 00.00
LAOS
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Laotian Christians challenge official ban and celebrate Holy Week

Members of two Evangelical communities in the southern province of Savannakhet hold services outside of their confiscated churches. They plan to break the padlocks on their churches unless they are removed. The authorities had closed the buildings down, alleging building permit irregularities.

Vientiane (AsiaNews/EDA) - Laotian Christians are challenging bans imposed by government authorities and are conducting Holy Week rites. According to the Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF), members of two Protestant communities in the southern province of Savannakhet gathered outside of their churches on 1 April and celebrated Palm Sunday even though buildings had been seized.

Although services were held last Sunday, they were reported only yesterday by the HRWLRF. Initially, word had spread that the padlocks on the church doors had been broken. Eventually, it became clear that the religious services were held outside the buildings. However, church members said they would break the padlocks if the authorities did not return the places of worship.

In the village of Kengweng, members of the local Evangelical Church celebrated Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week outside of their church building for the first time since the authorities seized it. "Although they are risking being arrested and detained en masse, Lao Christians hope to reclaim church properties that belong to them," HRWLRF director Sirikoon Prasertsee said.

Contrary to previous reports, padlocks on the church building were not removed, Sirikoon explained.  Yet, they still plan "removing the padlock next week if there are no problems before next Sunday," he added.

Something similar occurred in Dongpaiwan, where the faithful held a prayer outside the church the authorities seized last September.

In Savannakhet, scene of a vicious anti-Christian crackdown, the government has closed town three Evangelical churches in Dongpaiwan (September 2011), Nadaeng (4 December 2011) and Kengweng (22 February 2012), ostensibly for permit irregularities.

So far, the Laotian government has not taken an official position on returning the different places of worship. However, many NGOs and human rights activists have turned to the international community and the United Nations to put pressure on Vientiane to respect the UN Convention on Human Rights, the Laotian constitution and the inalienable right to religious freedom.

In Communist Laos, most people (67 per cent) are Buddhist. Christians represent only 2 per cent of the total population of six million people with Catholics accounting for 0.7 per cent.

Protestants have suffered religiously motivated persecution the most. AsiaNews has documented the case of farmers deprived of food because of their faith and clergymen arrested by the authorities.

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