Persecuted Church: Laos
Every month our ministry chooses a different country where Christians are being persecuted and we commit to pray for them, as you can see in the sidebar here on our website. The country we are praying for in August is Laos. Much of the information regarding persecution in Laos that I’ve included here comes from Open Doors USA’s World Watch Research Laos: Country Dossier (WWR).
Laos is a country in Southeast Asia inhabited by over 7 million people. Around 65% of the population lives in rural areas and small villages.
A little over half of the country is Buddhist, and around 42 percent belong to ethnic religions. There are about 227,00 Christians, which means they make up about 3.2% of the total population. Theravada Buddhism is believed to have entered the region in the 7th or 8th century, supported by various kingdoms in the surrounding areas. By the 14th century Buddhism was firmly established among the rulership of Laos. Some kings tried to repress the local animistic religions, but these measures did not succeed. Today it is recognized that in some areas Buddhism and the local religions have formed syncretisms. Roman Catholic missionaries made attempts to evangelise from 1630 onwards. More successful attempts at evangelisation began in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and were particularly successful among the Hmong people.
It is believed that the Lao people migrated to their current location from southwest China in the 12-13th centuries. The state of Lan Xang was created, encompassing what is now Laos and northeastern Thailand. Other powers vied for control of the area. Eventually, in the early 1700s, Lan Xang would split up into three separate kingdoms which conflicted with each other. By the late 1700s, these three would be subdued by Siam. In the late 1800s French influence grew in the region, eventually organizing it into a protectorate. In 1945 the Japanese took over and granted Laos an independent status. Two movements sprang up in response to these events: one with anti-Japanese sentiments, and the other with anti-French sentiments. France regained control of the region in 1946. In response to these movements, France decided to grant Laos a greater degree of autonomy. They were made a member of the French Union in 1949, which meant that while they had some independence the real power still lay in French hands. A new Communist political group called Pathet Lao arose which sought full independence from French governance. In 1954, the Geneva Conference was held, which put the rulership of Laos back into the hands of the royal government. Struggles broke out between left-aligned and right-aligned political groups in the wake of this decision. Laos was at this time also a battlefield in the Vietnam War. After American troops pulled out of Vietnam and communists were ascendent there, so too the Pathet Lao were ascendent in Laos. In 1975, the nation became the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the country remained governed by Marxist-Leninist principles, but important changes took place. It opened up to other non-communist countries, and has entered trade alliances.
These things being considered, it is shown that important factors in the persecution of Laotian Christians are Buddhism, local animistic religions, and communist government.
The Communist Party is opposed to religion, but in this country it has tried to reconcile itself with the Buddhists. Laotians acknowledge that they are a Buddhist country, with a long historical connection to this religion, so those who convert from Buddhism may be seen as lacking patriotism. There are also some elements of strong nationalism, meaning leaders want to keep the country pure of external influences (including Christianity). Community activities and rituals contain elements of Buddhist and ethnoreligious ritual, and Christian refusal to participate is interpreted as anti-social or unpatriotic.
“The Communists’ main goal is to preserve stability in the country and to keep the government secure. The predominant goal of many Buddhist monks is to preserve their respected role in society and to maintain their monopoly in religious matters and in political influence. This desire for preservation of power and position presents a lot of common ground for both sides.” (WWR). Although it is not as friendly toward ethnoreligious groups, they are tolerated because they are seen as an important part of the nation’s culture: “If citizens cannot let go of a religion, the officials prefer them having an indigenous one and not a ‘foreign’ one like Christianity” (WWR).
Government authorities monitor all religious activities. They regulate all newspapers, radio, and other forms of media. Local authorities regularly persecute Christians in their jurisdiction. Article 9 of the constitution nominally grants religious freedom, but this is limited to religions and organizations which are officially recognized by the government. All religious activities require permission from the government, which Christian leaders report the government is not apt to give.
A law that was created in 2017 is called the Law of Associations. As Human Rights Watch explains in a joint open letter, “The current Decree gives government authorities in Lao PDR sweeping powers that enable arbitrary restriction or denial of fundamental rights, including the power to unreasonably control and/or prohibit the formation of associations; arbitrarily broad powers to inspect, monitor and curtail the activities and finances of associations; the power to order the dissolution of associations on arbitrary grounds and without right of appeal; and powers to discipline associations and individual members on arbitrary grounds. The Decree also includes measures to criminalize unregistered associations and allow for prosecution of their members.”
WWR explains how this law has impacted Christians: “The new law requires churches to have both a registered place of worship that is owned by the church and a registered minister in order to be considered legal. However, this is almost impossible to accomplish. First, nobody is keen to sell land to a church. Secondly, the new law states that the construction of churches needs to be approved by the prime minister. Finally, land can easily be confiscated by the government.” 75% of approved Evangelical churches in Laos do not have a building to meet in, so they meet in homes. Home-meetings which are not approved are considered illegal gatherings, which may be punishable by a fine and confiscation of materials. House church meetings have been broken up either by the government authorities or by the local communities.
The largest Christian organization is the Laos Evangelical Church. They have worked with the government to collect information on other denominations trying to become recognized and in some cases have tried to prevent other Christian groups from coming into the country.
Evangelism may be reported as an attempt at forced conversion, which is illegal. Laotian Christians are therefore wary about sharing their faith or drawing attention to the way they believe. Bibles purchased outside of Laos are illegal, as are Bibles that have been translated into certain tribal languages which have not been approved by the government. Three Christian missionaries were detained and then deported in 2018 for distributing Christian materials. As VOA reports, “The missionaries, identified by the Casper, Wyoming-based group [Vision Beyond Borders] only as Wayne, Autumn and Joseph, were detained by Laotian police on April 8 while visiting villages in the northwestern province of Luang Namtha to distribute Gospel tracts and other Christian material. The website of U.S.-government funded Radio Free Asia, citing an unidentified district policeman, reported Tuesday that the three were detained for handing out religious materials without receiving official permission.”
In small villages, abandoning the traditional faiths will be interpreted as betrayal. In some cases, the Christian may be kicked out of the community for fear of angering powerful spirits/deities: “A convert's decision not to venerate the spirits anymore affects the whole community; it is believed that the spirits may get angry with everyone in the local population. For this reason, especially in rural areas, ordinary citizens will watch Christians with suspicion and sometimes even drive them out of their villages” (WWR). Common threats directed toward converts include divorce if the convert is married and loss of inheritance rights. Village leaders act as local arbitrators of the law, and when Christians appeal to these leaders for legal assistance against their persecutors, their requests are often rejected. These leaders may themselves openly engage in persecuting Christians.
In these rural areas, households are multi-generational, with up to three generations living in a single residence. In the poorest areas, an entire family may live in a single room. This makes it very difficult for Christians to practice their faith, since if they are discovered reading the Bible or praying their family will take action against them. For the same reason it is difficult to baptize believers in secret.
In school, children are taught about Buddhism. There have even been reports that Christian children were required to participate in Buddhist rituals as part of the curriculum. In other cases, Christians may be denied access to public education or discouraged from attempting to do so. Even if a child shows promising potential in school, once they graduate they may be denied employment because of their faith.
“Violence against Christians has never been very pronounced in Laos, but has always played a role and is slowly growing (although the increase may partly be explained by an improved reporting), especially by churches being closed and Christians expelled from village communities” (WWR). Pastors and other leaders might be detained and held until a fine is paid, putting a great deal of economic pressure on Christian families and communities.
How to Pray
Here are some specific ways you can pray for Christians in Laos:
- Pray that Christians in Laos will be encouraged and protected despite the harsh difficulties they face.
- Pray that Christianity will no longer be seen as a political tool of the West.
- Pray that ministries such as Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs will be successful in providing Bibles to believers.
- Pray that those who are sharing their faith will be protected and successful.
- Pray that those who have been expelled from their villages will stand strong in their faith.
- Pray that religious freedom will prevail in the nation.
- Pray that Laotians (including the persecutors) will come to know the truth and receive salvation through Yeshua.