In a remote part of the world rarely noticed by the international media, a slow but steady struggle is underway. Small communities of Christian adherents tucked away in the jungles and mountains of Communist Laos are fighting a very real, if unheard of, battle. They are fighting for the right to believe.
On August 30th, representatives from 11 Christian families in central Laos were summoned to report to an official meeting with the chief of their village in the Borikan District of Borikhamsai Province. Once there, they were told they and their families, consisting of 50 people, had three days to renounce their newly found Christian religion, return to animism (a form of spirit worship), or find a new place to live.
Despite having only converted to Christianity a few months beforehand, all of the families decided they would resist the pressure, ignore the threat, and continue to practice their faith. They correctly pointed out that their right to do so was protected by the Lao constitution. At the time of writing, there remains no word on whether or not the local village leaders decided to carry out their threat of eviction.
Unfortunately, the incident on August 30th is not rare. Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF), an advocacy group, reported that only a week later, on September 8th, Lao authorities in Savannakhet Province tried to force Christians in one village to drink “sacred” water and swear an oath to animist spirits, thereby proving their “loyalty, innocence, and submission” to local authorities.
The threat for failing to take part in the animist ritual was banishment from the village. Again, the Christians stood strong in their faith, with one church leader telling HRWLRF,”We as Christians cannot swear an oath to the spirits other than God; thus we have declined taking the sacred water.”
Then, just last week, HRWLRF reported that yet another village in Savannakhet Province had threatened Christians, announcing a sudden new ruling requiring all Christians in the village to reconvert to spirit worship or be expelled. In this case, Christians again rejected the requirement, pointing once more to the protection of religious freedom theoretically enshrined in the Lao constitution.
All of these incidents provide a glimpse into the battle for greater religious freedom being waged by the Christian minority in Laos. Making up less than 2% of the population, Lao Christians number little more than 100,000. For a few years following the Communist takeover of Laos in 1975, they were the target of intense government-backed persecution. Today, widespread persecution seems to have ceased, but the environment for Christians in Laos remains extremely difficult.
Western missionaries are officially forbidden from working in the country. Some Christian denominations, like the Methodists, are not recognized by the government, forcing members to worship illegally and in hiding. In 2012 alone, HRWLRF reported on more than 20 incidents of Christians facing discrimination, expulsion, arrest, and imprisonment on the basis of their faith. Given the small size of the Christian population of Laos, and the likelihood that the vast majority of these types of incidents go unreported, this is an astonishingly high number.
According to the most recent report on Laos by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a U.S. government watchdog, the Lao government continues to view Christianity as an “American import that potentially threatens Communist political oversight.” In addition it is considered by some to be a source of “social friction” in communities that are predominantly animist or Buddhist.
This view of Christianity’s growth as a threat to power creates an atmosphere for Christians that can be extremely dangerous. Last year, authorities in one province prevented Christian villagers from receiving food aid after devastating floods wiped out their harvest. International Christian Concern (ICC) received reports that the Christian community was beginning to starve and had started making dangerous and illegal attempts to cross into Thailand to find work. In that instance, ICC was able to step in and provide food relief to the Christian community, but for many Lao Christians, help remains far away.
Perhaps though the most remarkable, and most encouraging, detail in the stories we hear emerging from the mountains and jungles of Laos is of the impressively resolute faith consistently demonstrated by brand new Lao believers. Most of the eleven families who refused to recant in late August had only been Christians for a few months. Threats of eviction and arrest, and even imprisonment, seem completely unable to convince new Christians to abandon their faith.
What’s more, many seem to have learned that their freedom to believe is protected by the Lao constitution, even if in practice, local authorities try to persuade them otherwise. As the people of Laos move forward into the 21st century, the United States and the rest of the world must continue to strongly encourage the government of Laos to protect religious minorities. Only then will genuine respect for religious freedom emerge out of the darkness of persecution.