A group of young Christian men pray secretly inside a forest in Laos. (Photo supplied)
Christians in Laos continue to face routine harassment despite a pledge by the communist nation’s government to protect their rights, foreign rights advocates say.
In the latest case of what activists call is systematic harassment of Christians over their beliefs, four believers from as many villages who attended the same church were arrested a few months ago and have been kept in prison ever since, according to Open Doors USA, which advocates for the rights of persecuted Christians worldwide.
The four Christian men were separated from one another and placed in different cells, according to the Christian rights group, which says the imprisoned Christians are facing charges of “breaking the unity of the community” and “gathering people for worship without permission.”
One of the detainees, identified only as Inthy, was reportedly kept in an isolation cell called the “dark room” for 49 days with his hands and feet shackled. “According to our [locally based] partner, this cell is designed for hardcore criminals, like murderers,” Open Doors says.
“[Our] local partners in Laos report there has been a recent resurgence of arrests of Christians under such vague charges,” the rights group explains in a statement posted on its website.
“In a similar incident, a group of pastors have been arrested separately for doing ministry without sufficient charges,” it adds.
In communist Laos, where most of the country’s 7 million citizens are Buddhists, Christians, who account for around 2 percent of the population, are widely viewed as practitioners of an alien religion imported into the country by European and American missionaries in past decades.
Christianity is routinely portrayed as a subversive creed that undermines traditional Lao values. In many rural communities across the impoverished country, Christians face various forms of discrimination both by locals and officials, activists say.
Earlier this year, for instance, 13 Christian villagers belonging to four families were refused government assistance during a prolonged drought.
They were shunned by other villagers who refused to sell them rice, salt, soap and other necessary items, according to Christian Aid Mission, which provides aid for persecuted Christians.
“Local officials tried to force them to sign confessions and leave the village — twice — which they refused to do because they had nowhere to go,” the aid group reported, citing information received from the leader of a local ministry.
“The government wants to give special assistance to the people, but the village headman did not give any to the Christians,” the local Christian told Christian Aid Mission. “They are waiting until they renounce their faith.”
Yet despite such reports, the central government in Vientiane, the capital, denies that there is targeted persecution of Christians in Laos.
Last December the government passed the Law on the Evangelical Church, which guarantees the right of Christians, at least on paper, to practice their faith unmolested after decades of persecution.
However, the law remains unknown and unenforced across the country’s rural hinterland, which means Christians continue to face discrimination from some provincial officials, according to a senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity with Radio Free Asia last week.