Updated: April 01, 2021 05:13 AM GMT
Pastor Sithon Thippavong at a Christian wedding ceremony in Savannakhet province in September 2018. (Photo: Radio Free Asia)
A prominent rights advocate has called on Laotian authorities to release a Christian pastor who has been languishing in prison for more than a year simply for holding religious services.
Sithon Thippavong, a 34-year-old Christian pastor, was arrested on March 15 last year in the southwestern province of Savannaket after local authorities accused him of conducting religious services without permission.
Although the communist nation’s government passed a law in 2019 that allows Christians to preach and hold religious services, the law is routinely ignored by local authorities in provincial areas, Lao Christians and foreign rights activists say.
Sithon’s continued detention constitutes “a serious human rights violation” and the pastor should immediately be released, according to Phil Robertson, deputy director in the Asia-Pacific region of Human Rights Watch.
“Lao authorities should release Pastor Sithon and apologize for arresting and detaining him,” Robertson told Radio Free Asia’s Lao Service earlier this week.
“In general, the authorities should not violate the rights and freedom of those who believe in religion.”
Christians, who account for around 2 percent of Laos’ 7 million inhabitants, are nominally free by law to practice their religion. However, they continue to suffer routine harassment and various indignities at the hands of non-Christian locals and provincial authorities who may view them as subversive elements because of their “foreign” faith, which was imported into Laos by Western missionaries.
Sithon worked as a preacher in the village of Kalum Vangkhea until his arrest, which gathered international attention. No official explanation was given for his arrest at the time, but a local in his village told a foreign news agency that the pastor was arrested “for teaching religion.”
Sithon was reported to have been initially sentenced to six months in prison and members of his family were barred from visiting him in what foreign rights activists deemed a severe violation of his rights.
Some foreign Christian organizations have been calling for Sithon to be released, but so far without success.
Eric Blievernicht, who works for Vision Beyond Borders, a Christian organization based in the United States, expressed dismay at the pastor’s ongoing “extrajudicial imprisonment by the Lao government.”
“[We] are concerned he is not being treated well or fairly by his jailers,” Blievernicht said. “We ask for prayers for Pastor Thippavong and call upon the Lao government to release him and respect religious liberty for all its citizens.”
According to a media report, Pastor Sithon will be tried in court next week.
“Everyone is waiting to see whether he will be found guilty or not,” an unnamed Christian from his district in Savannaket province told Radio Free Asia.