As Catholics across the world are looking forward to the Christian holiday season with cheer, their brothers and sisters in Laos, a communist holdout of 7 million people, may be forgiven for being in a more subdued mood ahead of Christmas.
Many of the 75,000 or so Catholics who live around the landlocked nation, which is one of Asia's poorest countries, practice their faith only behind closed doors. If they failed to do so, they might well risk incurring their non-Christian neighbors' wrath who view Christianity as an alien religion, the faith of erstwhile European colonizers that has no place in a predominantly Buddhist nation.
Catholics and other Christians in Laos are among Southeast Asia's most persecuted religious minorities. Yet, the outside world has largely ignored their plight, except for a few Christian organizations that continue to aid their coreligionists in Laos and report on the latest atrocities against them.
"Christians who have converted from the primary religions — Buddhism and traditional animism — are the most targeted for persecution; they are thought to have rejected their families and communities," explains Open Doors, a nondenominational group that documents the persecution of Christians worldwide.
This year alone, according to foreign observers, numerous Laotian Christians have been harassed in various ways. Several have been evicted from their villages by other locals for being Christians, while
some were even arrested simply for practicing their faith out in the open.
Among the latest outrages, four local Christians were imprisoned last summer in Khammouane province in the largely mountainous country's central part, sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam. Their crime in Laotian authorities' eyes was that they had traveled to a local village to participate in the last rites for a deceased fellow Christian.
"When someone dies, we help by making donations, sharing food, and asking [Buddhist] monks to come and pray at the home," a local official told a news agency in explanation for the four Christian men's arrest.
"But [the Christians] wanted to do things that violate our traditional customs," he added. "They were preparing things that we felt were strange and wrong and did not understand, and so we acted to prevent that from happening."
And it isn't just officials who feel the need to "act" against local Christians. In October, seven local Christians were evicted from their modest homes by some of their Buddhist fellow villagers in the southern province of Salavan because they had refused to renounce their faith, which marked them out as pariahs in their community. Their homes were then demolished on the order of the village chief.
The impoverished Christian villagers, who belong to two families, were forced to live in makeshift huts in the local forest for weeks and subsist on meager rations without enough clothing to protect themselves from the elements. "We relied on food aid donated by our fellow Christians, and after living in the forest for about a month, we decided to come back to our village," one of the evictees said.
According to Radio Free Asia, they have recently been allowed to return, but they are being refused permission to rebuild their homes. They live "in temporary huts in the village, and the village chief won't allow us to build new homes," the Christian villager explained.
The case of these two groups of Christians is hardly unique in Laos. Christians account for only around 2 percent of the population in a largely homogenous nation ruled by a repressive communist regime that seized power by force in 1975. As a small minority with a different set of beliefs, they are convenient targets for persecution.
"The Communist regime tightly controls every aspect of religious life in Laos. The government has passed laws that make it difficult to build churches or conduct religious activities," Open Doors says.
"Even 75 percent of all government-approved Lao Evangelical Church congregations do not have permanent church structures and are forced to conduct worship services in homes," it adds.
Not surprisingly, Christmas this year for many persecuted Christians in Laos will be a far less joyful and spirited affair than it should be. Yet the holiday's salvific message will undoubtedly have an especial resonance for these long-suffering Christians, whose situation brings to mind the persecution of early Christians in Ancient Rome.
Just as those early Christians in the Roman Empire during periods of persecution, so too Laotian Christians are forced to practice their faith clandestinely, yet just as it was then so it is now in another way too: embodied in the message and spirit of Christmas is the promise of salvation and freedom from fear for Laotian Christians.