By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
(Worthy News) - A pastor who was jailed in Laos for more than a year after refusing to end his church services has been released, supporters confirmed Thursday.
Pastor Sithong Theppavong was told by authorities on March 15 last year to halt worship meetings at his small church in Savannakhet Province. When Pastor Sithong refused, he was detained without charge, according to Christians familiar with the case.
Christians expressed concern recently about his whereabouts in the communist-run nation where devoted Christians have been tortured for their faith, Worthy News learned.
However, more than a year after his initial detention, Pastor Sithong finally stood trial for "creating disorder" by holding church services without permission from Communist authorities.
On April 6, he was convicted and sentenced to one-year imprisonment, according to trial observers. As Pastor Sithong already spent more than a year in prison, a court ruled that his sentence was fully served and ordered his release. He was also given a fine of roughly $430, Christians said.
In a statement obtained by Worthy News, an unidentified Christian said that believers had “prayed for Pastor Sithong for more than a year now.”
The Christian added: “We're very excited that he's still alive... He may have been sick and frail in prison, but now he'll be very happy to be able to serve God again."
The Christian was not identified amid security concerns. Advocacy group Voice Of the Martyrs (VOMC), which distributed the remarks, said it was praying “for his complete healing, both physically and emotionally.”
VOMC added it was urging its supporters to also pray for “continued ministry opportunities” for the pastor. He seeks to “compassionately and effectively reach the people of Laos with the message of the Gospel,” the group noted.
The case underscored worries among mission groups about a broader crackdown on evangelism and church services in Laos.
Christian activities are heavily monitored by communist authorities, including those of registered churches, according to several sources.
Life is tough for converts to the Christian faith, rights investigators say.
Especially in rural areas, house churches are forced to meet underground as they are considered “illegal gatherings,” added advocacy group Open Doors in an assessment.
Most Laotians live in rural areas, with around 80 percent working in agriculture, mainly growing rice in the former French colony.
Despite the difficulties, there are some 200,000 Christians among the more than 7 million mainly Buddhist people of the Communist-run nation, according to Open Doors estimates.
Landlocked Laos is one of the world's few remaining communist states and one of East Asia's poorest. Communist forces overthrew the monarchy in 1975, heralding years of isolation.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Laos began opening up to the world.
But despite economic reforms, the country remains poor and heavily dependent on foreign aid while the persecution of minority Christians continues, experts say.