Farmer Sithong Theppavong was seized after starting a small church in Savannakhet province. (Photo: Wikipedia)
A Christian man in Laos who was seized by local authorities last March after he refused to desist from practicing his faith remains missing nearly a year later with his whereabouts unknown, according to foreign Christian groups.
Sithong Theppavong, a farmer in the village of Ban Kaleum Vang Khi in the communist nation’s Savannakhet province, reportedly started a small church on his property, which caught the attention of local authorities who warned him to cease his ministry.
After Sithong failed to comply despite a formal official request, he was detained on March 15 and no one was allowed to visit him, according to the international Christian organization The Voice of the Martyrs, which campaigns on behalf of persecuted believers worldwide.
When the Christian villager’s wife continued making inquiries about her missing husband, local authorities began to harass her. They also confiscated her motorcycle to make it harder for her to get about, foreign Christian rights activists say.
“Anyone who asks about their situation is also investigated. Concern is growing that he [Sithong] may not even be alive,” says International Christian Concern, an ecumenical Christian organization based in Washington, DC.
Around the communist and predominantly Buddhist nation of 7 million, Christians account for 2 percent of the population, with half of them being Catholics.
Although by law they are free to practice their religion within certain limits, in practice Lao Christians, many of whom belong to ethnic minorities across the impoverished countryside, often face various forms of discrimination on a regular basis.
In villages where they are outnumbered by people who practice a traditional syncretism of Buddhism and animism, local Christians might be forced to practice their faith in secret to avoid being harassed by their neighbors or local officials.
Over the past year there have been several reported instances of Christian villagers in Laos being chased away from their homes or detained on trumped-up charges.
Owing to decades of government-sponsored communist propaganda, Christianity is widely viewed as an alien creed that was imported into the country by European and North American colonialists with the aim of undermining traditional Lao values.
Many people in Laos believe that by practicing their foreign faith local Christians anger native guardian spirits, which might retaliate by making crops fail or causing environmental disasters.
As a result of such superstitious beliefs and widespread prejudices, most of the country’s Christians around the rural hinterland have to make do with religious rudimentary services.
“While house churches and church buildings do exist, the vast majority of them do not have a trained lead pastor,” explains The Voice of the Martyrs. “However, in most villages, church buildings are not allowed. If village leaders notice that a house church is growing, they will try to stop it.”
Making matters worse for local Christians in one of Asia’s poorest nations is that they may be refused basic assistance by local officials because of their faith and even face summary arrest.
“Christians commonly are denied medical treatment, education and other social services. Arrests of believers frequently take place, resulting in detainments that average for up to a week,” The Voice of the Martyrs says.