By BosNewsLife Asia Service
VIENTIANE, LAOS (BosNewsLife)-- At least 15 Christian families in Laos remained unaccounted for Sunday, March 16, after security forces raided their villages and Hmomg church leaders were sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, human rights investigators said.
Religious rights group Release International said about 58 Christians, many of them women and children from the Hmong ethnic group, were believed to have disappeared following the raids in Bokeo district on February 22.
It came as Lao authorities also sentenced nine Hmong church leaders to 15 years in jail – because their Christian activities, including worship meetings, had grown “beyond acceptable levels for the communist officials,” the group added.
The nine church officials were detained during a crackdown by police and military forces last July that reportedly left at least 13 Christians dead.
Release International said it was “deeply concerned” for the safety of the disappeared Christian villagers as authorities have so far refused to disclose their whereabouts. The Hmong Christians were apparently targeted in the past by Laotian authorities, despite being part of the officially-recognized Lao Evangelical Church. This was part of a wider clampdown against Christians there, the group suggested.
"We spoke to pastors who had been jailed simply for sharing their faith,” said Release spokesman Andrew Boyd. “They described being brutally tortured and pressured to renounce their religion. When they refused they were chained with their feet in stocks in stinking cells without any sanitation. Yet many shared their faith with the other prisoners and led them to Christ."
The Hmong, who fled from Vietnam, are allegedly singled for several reasons, including their support for Americans in the Vietnam War. In addition the Communist authorities see the spread of Christianity as a threat to their powerbase, according to several rights groups, including Christian Freedom International.
Christians are often viewed as "foreign-funded conspirators" working to undermine the Communist revolution, Release International said.
Lao officials have denied human rights abuses or persecution of Hmong people. It has also denied reports this week that thousands of ethnic Hmong face persecution in the forests of the land-locked country, after a report of Arabic news channel Al Jazeera showed hundreds of allegedly starving Hmong living in constant fear of attack.
"The Hmong in Laos are not at all persecuted," Yong Chanthalangsy, spokesman for the Laos ministry of foreign affairs told Al Jazeera. "We do not consider those in the films as our enemy," he said, referring to video footage shot in secret by Al Jazeera correspondent Tony Birtley. "On the contrary we are helping them to reintegrate with the mainstream of society."
Al Jazeera's report, first broadcast on Thursday, March 13, showed hundreds of sick and malnourished men, women and children, living in desperate conditions hiding in the Laos jungle from government forces. Rights groups have said there are many Christians among the Hmong people.
Christians comprise just over one percent of Laos’ 6.5 million people, who are predominantly Buddhist or animist., according to the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
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