The Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lao capital Vientiane was built in 1928. (Photo: Wikiwand)
Four Christian men in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic have been languishing in jail for months because they wanted to hold a Christian funeral, which officials said would have violated local customs and traditions, according to foreign Christian groups.
Half of the communist nation’s Christians are Catholics and many belong to ethnic minorities who were converted to Christianity by European and American missionaries before the ruling communist Pathet Lao (Lao Nation) guerrilla movement seized power in 1975 after the Vietnam War.
Christianity has been widely portrayed by local officials and media alike as an alien religion in landlocked Laos, whose population is predominantly Buddhist and animist.
The four Christians were detained in early July in Khammouane province after they had traveled to a village to participate in the last rites for a deceased fellow believer.
Provincial officials deemed the Christian ceremony to be against local customs and arrested the four visitors on sight, an official told Radio Free Asia.
“When someone dies, we help by making donations, sharing food and asking [Buddhist] monks to come and pray at the home,” the official was quoted as saying.
“But [the Christians] wanted to do things that violate our traditional customs. They were preparing things that we felt were strange and wrong and do not understand, and so we acted in order to prevent that from happening.”
The four Christian men have not been formally charged with any crime, yet remain incarcerated pending the authorities' decision on how to proceed.
Meanwhile, the imprisoned villagers’ wives and children have been facing increased hardship as a result of a “loss of income and uncertainty about the four men’s fate,” according to The Voice of the Martyrs, an international non-profit group whose mission is to defend the rights of persecuted Christians worldwide.
Christians account for around 2 percent of Laos’ 7 million citizens and as a religious minority in a largely homogenous nation they routinely face various forms of discrimination, including outright abuse and judicial harassment.
“The government-controlled Lao Evangelical Church is allowed to exist, but the communist government and Buddhist monks actively persecute Christians,” The Voice of the Martyrs says.
“Poverty, lack of infrastructure and mountainous terrain also make evangelistic outreach a challenge. Thanks to bold evangelists, the church continues to grow even as it experiences ongoing persecution.”
Christians are facing a great deal of prejudice and harassment, especially in rural areas where they are seen as willful violators of time-honored customs and traditions by practicing a religion associated with white European colonizers.
Christian villagers are often ostracized and many practice their faith in secret, away from prying eyes, to avoid being evicted, foreign rights groups say.
Earlier this month seven Christians were evicted from their homes by neighbors in a village in Salavan province in southern Laos after they had refused to renounce their faith.
The Christian villagers fled into a nearby forest where they were forced to live without basic amenities in a small makeshift hut.
“Their family members are too scared [to help them] and fear they too will be thrown out of their homes if they dare to provide any help,” a villager told a foreign news agency.
“They have no food or clothing and do not know where to turn for help. The village authorities will not allow relatives or other people to help them.”