Sacred Heart Cathedral, also know as Vientiane Cathedral, was built in 1928 during the French colonial period. (Photo: Wikipedia)
To most visitors, Laos is a scenic country with friendly locals, quaint Buddhist temples and picturesque landscapes. To many of the country’s Christians, though, the communist nation is a place of torment.
Christians, who number around 150,000 with half of them being Catholic, make up 2 percent of the landlocked nation’s population and they face daily humiliation and harassment, according to several foreign Christian organizations that document the persecution of Laos’ long-suffering Christians.
On paper, Christians in the country are free to practice their religion, within certain limits. In practice, however, many Christians do so only in private for fear of being ostracized in their predominantly Buddhist communities or even arrested by local officials, especially across the less cosmopolitan rural hinterland where Christianity is widely seen as an alien and subversive faith that undermines local norms and does not belong in the country.
Many Christians, regardless of their religious denomination, feel that practicing their faith openly in their villages could expose them to abuse and various forms of harassment from other villagers.
“Two months ago, these believers were threatened [when] other members of their village said they would kick them out of the community because of their faith,” Open Doors International, which supports persecuted Christians worldwide, reported last month apropos of several young Christians in a Lao village who conduct their services in secret in woods.
“They can no longer meet to pray inside their village. But instead of giving up, they are finding other ways to meet as secretly as possible,” the group added.
Even so, many local Christians can run afoul of village headmen and other officials. A pastor, identified as Saengchan, was recently arrested for refusing to abandon his faith on the orders of his village’s chief. “When Saengchan persisted in sharing the gospel, the chief informed authorities who soon apprehended and detained him,” Open Doors reported.
“To be a Christian in Laos is seen as a betrayal of the community. Those who choose to follow Jesus are not only rejected by their village and family but are heavily monitored or, in extreme cases, detained by authorities,” it explained.
Christians in detention are then subjected to communist-style “re-education,” which is routinely disguised as “training,” with the aim of forcing them to abandon their allegedly erroneous beliefs and embrace Buddhism or atheism.
A local police officer stressed that the pastor, who is a father of five and was arrested along with two of his siblings, would indeed be “educated” about the error of his ways. “We want to educate him on how to be in unity and build relationships with his neighbors. He will be trained for at least three to six months before we release him,” the policeman reportedly said.
Nor have these three Christians been the only ones arrested this year for the “crime” of being Christian.
A few months ago, four Christians who attended the same church were detained over charges that they had violated “the unity of the community” and “gathered people for worship without permission.” They have been in prison ever since, with one of the detainees kept in an isolation cell called the “dark room” for 49 days with his hands and feet shackled, according to Open Doors.
Yet despite these outrageous violations of freedom of religion, a fundamental human right enshrined in various international treaties to which Laos is a party, the plight of Christians in the country has gone largely unnoticed abroad.
Christians in Laos are among the poorest of the poor in one of Asia’s poorest countries where the basic rights of many citizens, and not only of Christians, are routinely violated. Yet the Vatican has stayed silent on the persecution of Christians in Laos.
Pope Francis is reportedly aware of their situation. In January 2017, Bishop Jean Khamse Vithavong, the apostolic vicar of Vientiane, had an audience with the pope in the Vatican. “He didn’t give us a speech but was interested in us and asked us about our situation,” the bishop said in an interview that same month. “He listened a lot.”
Clearly, however, it is time for the Vatican to take some action on behalf of the long-suffering Christians of Laos. At the very least, it could offer targeted financial support to ameliorate the situation of the worst-off Catholics in the impoverished country.
“Our poverty is also economical due to a lack of facilities and funds to build new ones [churches],” Bishop Khamse said. “In 1975, our churches were taken by the government, including the Cathedral of Vientiane. It is the largest of the churches in the country and is dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Thank God, since 1979 the government has it made available to us, and we can at least use it.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.