Laos Government Forces Detain And Torture Christian Villagers

Monday, August 15, 2005

Monday, August 15, 2005
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Laos.

TAO TAN, LAOS (BosNewsLife)-- He quietly says he still believes in Jesus Christ. But he can no longer admit it publicly. Since 42-year old Phouthone Chansombat became the chief of Tao Tan, a village 135 kilometers (about 85 miles) from Laos' capital Vientiane, he had to renounce his faith in Christ. "I can no longer be a Christian," Chansombat says, fighting back tears.

Chansombat is not alone. Across the country village chiefs and other workers have been pressured by Communist authorities to give up their Christian faith, BosNewsLife established. Church sources in remote areas of northern Laos claim the Communist government is desperate to stop the spread of Christianity, which it allegedly regard as an unwelcome Western religion.

Most construction in several villages BosNewsLife visited seems focused on expanding or building new churches to accommodate the apparently growing number of Christians. Churches also function as a place for healthcare in these areas because there are no nearby hospitals.

Human rights workers say the central government in Vientiane regard this church activities as questioning the Communist system of Laos. "The practice of Christianity is often seen as a threat to the state's ideology or the government's power," says Christian Freedom International (CFI), a U.S.-backed group supporting persecuted Christians in the area.


The Vientiane home of CFI co-workers involved in providing aid was therefore raided last week by security forces, BosNewsLife learned.

Lao Communist authorities have strongly denied human rights abuses and say they act only against those seen as a threat to society. However in recent months, Communist backed local authorities and police have raided several villages in northern and southern Laos where possibly dozens of believers were tortured and detained on "false charges" ranging from owning "illegal weapons" to holding "illegal gatherings," church and other representatives say.

"Those detained include two village guards, a father and a son, who are already three months in jail because they refuse to give up Christianity," says a leader of a growing underground evangelical church movement. He speaks on condition of anonymity as in his words "giving negative information to a foreigner can mean 15-years in jail."

He claims village families his movement knows "disappeared" while others have been tortured. Since the latest reported crackdown began four months ago, his movement has been busy contacting persecuted Christians.


"We know of several incidents near the Vietnam border where Laos police raided villages and forced locals to stand for three days with their hands in the air till they renounced their faith in Christ. Nobody is able to keep up with that kind of torture for so long..." Those who refused to obey were allegedly put in jail. He says his organization knows of up to 6 Christians still in jail. They "include two brothers" who were imprisoned 15 years in jail about six years ago while a another man sentenced with them died in recent years, the church leader says.

CFI says the situation worsened since the Laos government issued Prime Minister's Decree 92 on the "Administration and Protection of Religious Practice" in an apparent attempt to rule on "the rapidly growing Christian faith" in the Asian nation. However the Laos government claims the legislation has meant a breakthrough for religious liberty in the country as it "establishes rules" for religious activities in a broad range of areas.

CFI disagrees. "While touting to the outside world a major breakthrough in religious liberty, in reality Decree 92 was a government crackdown on Christianity," it points out in a policy paper.


Back in Tao Tan, Village Chief Chansombat explains that he allows Christian gatherings and church services. "Unfortunately I can not participate in them because I would lose my job," he adds. Christian locals say they do not see Chansombat, a father of five, as a Communist traitor: in the impoverished village of 556 few can effort to say "no" to a well paid government job.

Apparently irritated about its significant Christian population of about 50 percent, authorities have made it difficult for the people of Tao Tan to survive. "We wanted to plant rice fields in the hills so we can support ourselves. But the authorities ban this because they claim it harms the environment," the village chief says.

Last week a CFI team brought 300 dollars to connect electricity to the local school, and 1200 dollars for a newer, larger, church paid for by the Presbyterian Church in the world's film capital, Hollywood. "Your brothers and sisters in the United States love you and pray for you," says CFI President Jim Jacobson as children and their parents gather in the school.

"If we don't come here, people must work years to effort this," he explains.


Christian missions have contributed to the spread of Christianity in this village. It was founded in 1970 with 7 families during a time of civil strife between different ethnic groups in the country. Soon it became a safe heaven for people of different religious backgrounds, including Evangelicals, Catholics and Animists.

Tensions remain, but today village kids smile. Toys and balloons have come to town while Christian medics including a dentist treat them and their parents in a corner of the local school. And than there are Bibles, a precious commodity in this Communist ruled nation. CFI managed to get 22 pieces to them. Dozens more will be deported to a nearby village. That's something to sing about. "Hallelujah" and "God is Good," sing malnourished children and youngsters as endless rain changes muddy paths into rivers.

"Unfortunately the government does now allow the free distribution of Bibles so they have to be smuggled in," says Jacobson. Legislation allows Christian materials to be distributed only with permission from authorities. "But in practice the government has never authorized Lao Christians to print religious material. It also does not give permission for the import of Bibles," he adds.


Officially Christians comprise roughly 1.5 percent of the 6 million population of Laos. However church leaders in villages suggest that figure is much higher, and growing. If it's up to the pastor of Tao Tan many of the new Christians will visit his congregation, a wooden large hut under long leaves to keep dry in the rainy season.

They also pray for Western countries where unlike in Laos, church attendance has decreased and Christianity seems to compete with New Age and MTV.

In Tao Tan and other villages there are few antennas. But a wooden cross can be seen on churches from far away. Christian pastors say the persecution they endured for believing "in the crucified and risen Lord" has strengthened their faith. Something they claim Western nations need as well.

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