Uncertain freedom for Laotian Christians

Government officials claim Christians suffer no discrimination or violence, but the latter face marginalisation and arrests. Proselytising is banned.

Vientiane (AsiaNews/RFA) – Religious freedom for Protestants in Laos is a mixed bag with a law that officially protects religious freedom but with restrictions and arrests in certain situations.

In Luang Prabang, a province in northern Laos, local sources note that religious rights are limited and government officials have branded Christianity an "American import".

When Christians are confronted by certain problems over land, water use, wrongdoings, village leaders refuse to intervene, saying “Christians have no rights.”

Reached by RFA, officials responsible for religious affairs say Laotian Christians are protected by law. “Villagers can believe in any religion they want. Cousins, brothers, and sisters may live in the same village but follow different religions,” an official in Luang Prabang said.

“We give the same rights to everyone to believe in any religion they want, and if they have any problems, we solve this for them,” said an official with the Lao Front for National Reconstruction in Vientiane.

“In our district,” he added, “there are seven small churches, and an official from the province comes down once each month to talk to them and give them advice”.

Another official in Houa Panh province said that there is no violence against Christians. However, “They can’t try to persuade other people to believe in their religion,” he added.

This is the crux of the matter as it underscores the ambiguities surrounding proselytising, mission and proclamation.

On 15 March, pastor Sithon Thipavong was arrested for "religious activities" in Kalum Vangkhea, a village in Savannakhet province. He was given six months in prison, but no official explanation for his sentence.

Laos has a population of just over seven million. Christians are around 2 per cent, evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics.