Provincial official claims local authorities “misunderstood” religious freedom regulations.
DUBLIN, September 18 (Compass Direct News) – Confronted with evidence of rights abuses yesterday, an official in Champasak province, Laos, said district officials had “misunderstood” religious freedom regulations when they arrested and detained two men for converting to Christianity, according to Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).
District police officers in cooperation with the chief of Jick village in Phonthong district arrested Khambarn Kuakham and Phoun Koonlamit on Sept. 8, accusing them of “believing in Christianity, a foreign religion,” HRWLRF reported.
Both men were placed in criminal detention for five days and ordered to renounce their faith, the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) confirmed.
Officials warned Kuakham that he had violated the terms of his employment by having contact with Christians and converting to the Christian faith. He must renounce his faith in order to return to his teaching position, they said. If he refused, he would face a lengthy detention.
When challenged by local Christians, the head of Champasak province’s National Front for Reconstruction – a religious affairs body – claimed that according to a government decree issued in 2002 the men should have sought prior approval to convert. The Decree on Management and Protection of Religious Activities states that if there were no Christians in a village prior to the Communist takeover in 1975, potential converts in the village or town must seek permission to convert to Christianity.
Local Christians argued that since Kuakham attended worship services in another village with an existing Christian presence, he had not violated the decree.
They also pointed to Article 3 of the same decree, which states that “all Lao citizens are equal before the law in believing or not believing religions as provided by the Constitution and laws of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.”
The official then said district authorities had “misunderstood” the situation, and that he would caution them to respect the believers’ freedom to worship.
Still, the men were released after five days with the understanding that if they continued to practice their faith, then they would be arrested and detained again. At press time, Kuakham was back in his teaching position and had no intention of renouncing his faith.
Christians Held in Stocks
In Boukham village, Savannakhet, three Christians remain in detention for their faith, HRWLRF reported yesterday. Officials have kept pastor Sompong Supatto, 32, Boot Chanthaleuxay, 18, and Khamvan Chanthaleuxay, 18, in handcuffs and foot stocks since their arrest on Aug. 3, causing considerable pain.
Released from the stocks only for toilet breaks, both Boot Chanthaleuxay and Khamvan Chanthaleuxay were suffering from loss of feeling and infection in their legs and feet due to lack of blood circulation.
Supatto, who had been nursing a sick family member before he was detained, learned last week that the family member had died. Despite hardships caused to the family, both Supatto and his wife are adamant that they will not forsake Christianity.
Authorities have said they will release the men only if they renounce their faith.
Several sources have confirmed that authorities are still targeting Tah Oih tribal Christians in Saravan province.
On Sept. 8, provincial and district authorities held a meeting in Katin village, claiming the Lao central government had ordered them to do so in response to international inquiries about religious freedom abuses in the village. Officials talked to leaders and residents about the 2002 decree and asked all parties to respect the religious laws of the nation, HRWLRF reported on Tuesday (Sept. 16).
They also cautioned Christians that their right to faith would stand only if they cooperated with village activities and if they were not bribed or paid to believe in Christianity.
On Friday (Sept. 12), however, village authorities seized a buffalo belonging to a Christian villager identified only as Bounchu and informed him that the animal would only be returned if he renounced his faith. The buffalo, worth about US$350 and vital for agricultural activity, was a prized family asset.
When Bounchu refused, officials on Saturday (Sept. 13) slaughtered the buffalo in the village square and distributed the meat to all non-Christian families in the village. They also warned all Christian residents that they would continue to take possession of their livestock until they renounced their faith.
Residents of Katin village had earlier killed a Christian villager on July 21. Officials arrested a total of 80 Christians on July 25 and detained them in a local school compound, denying them food for three days in an attempt to force the adults to sign documents renouncing their faith. (See Compass Direct News, “Authorities Arrest 90 Christians in Three Lao Provinces,” Aug. 8.)
Several aspects of the 2002 decree need to be addressed, a spokesman from HRWLRF told Compass today.
“From this and other incidents of persecution in Saravan and Savannakhet provinces, it appears that district and local authorities have been misinterpreting the decree, either intentionally or in ignorance,” he said.
International advocacy efforts were helpful in addressing these issues, he added. For example in Champasak, there was some evidence that provincial officials were embarrassed by negative publicity generated over the arrest of Kuakham and Koonlamit.
The LMHR issued a press release on Sept. 10 pointing to an upsurge in arrests and religious freedom abuses in Laos and calling for intervention from international governments and Non-Governmental Organizations.
Report from Compass Direct News