Lao Government Targets Tribal Christians

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Officials imprison and torture believers, force them to renounce their faith.

by Sarah Page

DUBLIN, April 26, 2005 (Compass) – In recent weeks, details have emerged from Laos outlining a new crackdown on tribal Christians in the southern province of Savannakhet.

A local source has confirmed to Compass that 24 Christians from the Bru tribe were arrested in the last week of March. They came from the four villages of Hueyhoy Nua, Kaeng Aluang, Palong and Nonsung in Muangphin district, Savannakhet.

“The believers were beaten when they refused to sign an affidavit to give up their faith,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “They were also tied to a post under hot sunshine without shirt or food for one or two days, and red ants were poured on their bodies. Two of the believers – a man and a woman – were also beaten badly by the district prosecutor.”

Some of the prisoners were stripped from the waist up, bound with rope and left in a jungle area infested with red ants for several hours, according to reports from Christian Aid Mission.

Christians in Huayhoy Nua and Kaeng Aluang villages wrote a letter of appeal to the office of the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC) in Vientiane on March 31, describing recent events.

An English translation of the letter states that three district officers came to their villages on March 10 in order to “promote and propagate state and party policy.”

The officials told villagers they must, “stop and denounce their faith in Jesus religion. Every family and everyone must sign the affidavit to give up their faith and if not, we will never go back to our offices and we will base ourselves in these two villages for three to six months.”

The officials also said villagers would not be permitted to leave their homes to work in their plantations and rice fields until they had signed the affidavit.

By late March, the situation in Muangphin was very tense. Most Christians steadfastly refused to sign the affidavit and more district officers, police and soldiers arrived.

On March 27, the first two Christians were arrested at Huayhoy Nua village. Eight Christians were arrested on March 28, seven on March 30 and another seven on April 1, bringing the total to 24.

In their letter to the LEC, the Christians of Muangphin stated, “We . . . therefore make an appeal to you for our right and justice, because this has not happened for any other reason than our faith.”

Christian Aid’s sources reported that on April 2, those arrested were asked to place their thumbprint on a document stating that they had renounced their faith in Jesus. Sources say officials whipped the believers’ hands, slapped their faces and pulled their hair to persuade them to sign the documents.

Twenty-two of the prisoners “signed” the documents and were set free. The remaining two – Mr. Khamchan and Mr. Vangthong - were accused of illegal weapons possession and may face serious consequences, according to Christian Aid.

One of the believers who renounced his faith later wrote a letter confessing his shame: “I could not endure any longer while I was in the woods, so I signed the document to renounce my faith.”

He then stated, “The reason I signed the document . . . was that I was afraid. . . . From now on, I declare that I believe in God.”

The Christians of Muangphin sent a second letter of appeal to the LEC in mid-April, claiming that Christians were still being threatened. On April 5, five district officers told a Christian from Huayhoy Nua village that if he did not give up this “foreign religion,” he would be put under hot sunshine or “hung on the tree full of red ants,” because “this religion is causing division.”

When this Christian refused, he was ordered to remain at home and not meet with any other villagers. On April 7 he was summoned to a meeting in the forest with several district officers and four armed soldiers. Again he was threatened with serious harm if he did not give up his faith.

Other villagers who had signed the affidavit renouncing their faith were warned not to meet together for prayer or worship.

Communists took over the landlocked country of Laos in 1975. After the takeover, authorities expelled foreign missionaries, closed churches and imprisoned many Christians without trial.

In July 2002, the government issued Decree No. 92, on the Management and Protection of Religious Activities in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The Decree was meant to assure the international community of the government’s intent to improve conditions for religious minorities.

However, the wording of the decree was so vague that many critics felt it would hinder, rather than improve freedom of religion.

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