by Stefan Bos, Worthy News Correspondent
VIENTIANE, LAOS (Worthy News)-- A government crackdown on churches in southern Laos is spreading to a new district with the brief detention of two "prominent pastors" for alleged unauthorized worship and their involvement in evangelism and an order take down crosses, representatives told Worthy News.
Authorities summoned Pastors Bounlerd and Adang to the police headquarters in Phin District of Savannakhet province on Friday, May 11, said the Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF), which has close contacts with local Christians.
Christians in the area often use one name.
During the meeting at police headquarters, district authorities interrogated Pastor Bounlerd of Alowmai Church and Pastor Adang of Kengsainoi Church on several issues, including their involvement in house churches, HRWLRF explained.
"Authorities questioned whether the three houses, located in the villages of Alowmai, Kengsainoi and Kapang are being used for worship meetings and whether they have obtained official approval for religious gatherings," added HRWLRF.
Officials reportedly said they suspect the leaders are holding illegal church services with outside support.
Both pastors responded that they use their own homes for worship as there are no nearby official church buildings, Christians said.
Additionally, police and district officials accused the two men of "proselytizing" the word often used for evangelism and ordered them to stop spreading the Christian message to the Lao people "because due to their witness a large number of people have come to believe in the Christian faith," HRWLRF said.
Both church leaders reportedly said they "did not go out proselytizing Lao people but rather Lao people have been coming to them for help because of illness."
"Lao people have become believers on their own after they have seen God's power of healing," HRWLFW quoted the pastors as saying.
CROSSES TAKE DOWN
However district authorities ordered the two Christian leaders to take down crosses that are hanging on the exterior walls of their houses that are being used as a place of worship, Christians said.
The pastors reportedly declined saying "the cross is a symbol of the Christian faith just like other religions in Laos that have their own religious symbols."
The pastors were released after one hour, but local Christians said it remains to be seen whether the Phin district authorities will follow through with their orders.
The incident is the latest in a larger crackdown that also included the closure of churches and detention of Christians, Worthy News established.
"With this incident, the official crackdown on Lao churches in Savannakhet province that had started almost eight months ago in Dongpaiwan village in Saybuli district on September 14, 2011 has now spread to Phin district of Savannakhet," HRWLRF said.
The crackdown in the Communist-led nation is seen by critics as part of a wider campaign against growing Christianity in the Asian nation.
Christian groups estimate there are some 200,000 devoted Christians in the mainly Buddhist country of 6.4 million people, where especially village churches report growth.
HRWLRF group said it has urged the Lao government to "respect Lao Christians’ freedom to manifest their religion or belief in worship in Phin district as guaranteed by the Lao constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as ratified" by Laos.