By Sarah Page
Nearly 50 Christians await their fate today after officials in Natoo village, southern Laos, on Wednesday (Dec. 21) summoned four of their leaders and warned that they would evict the entire church “within 24 hours” if they refused to give up their faith.
Officials told the Christians they had forfeited their right to live in the village because of their faith, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported.
Established just two years ago, the church in Natoo village, Palansai district of Savannakhet Province meets every week in the home of church leader Sompu. The forty-seven members include men, women and children belonging to four extended families.
Immediately after the discussion with Natoo officials, Sompu reported the incident to sub-district police, but at press time district officials had not intervened, according to HRWLRF.
“We are alarmed because the police and military seem to have taken over authority from the religious affairs department in Savannakhet,” a spokesman from HRWLRF told Compass.
Religious affairs staff should take action, he added, because village officials have violated Lao law, the Constitution and international human rights standards by threatening eviction on the basis of religious belief.
The Natoo eviction notice came less than a week after officials in Boukham village, just five kilometers away from Natoo, arrested eight church leaders for organizing a Christmas event attended by some 200 Christians. The arrests – and putting seven of the leaders in wooden stocks – came even though Christians had secured permission for the event.
Two of the church leaders have since been released after paying steep fines, the first on Sunday (Dec. 18) and the second one this morning, according to a source who preferred to go unnamed.
“We are at a critical juncture,” the HRWLRF spokesman told Compass. “Persecution is likely to spread without strong intervention from central government.”
HRWLRF strongly suspects the involvement of higher-level officials in these incidents.
“It is unheard of that a village headquarters would have access to wooden stocks – they have to obtain them from district or provincial authorities,” the spokesman explained. “So it’s clear that the arrest in Boukham was pre-planned and was approved by at least the district officials and possibly provincial authorities as well.”
Six of the eight church leaders arrested in Boukham were still detained in wooden stocks at press time.
Representatives of the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC), the only Protestant denomination recognized by the Lao government, on Sunday (Dec. 18) paid a fine of 1 million kip (US$123) to secure the release of the eighth leader, identified by the single name Kingmanosorn, who pastors a church in Savannakhet city.
A second detainee was released yesterday after paying the same fine, a source who preferred to go unnamed told Compass today.
“Seven of the eight leaders initially detained in Boukham were on a police list to be arrested for the Christmas event,” a spokesman from HRWLRF told Compass. “The police had been following them because they were actively building the church and spreading the faith. However, Kingmanosorn was not on the list.”
Last year, when Boukham officials gave permission for a Christmas event, the village chief spoke to the 70-odd Christians who had gathered and gave them his blessing. In December 2009, however, officials tore down the tent where some 40 Christians had gathered to celebrate Christmas. At that time there were no arrests.
In July 2008, district police stormed into the home of Pastor Sompong in Boukham and ordered the approximately 60 Christians present to cease worshipping God or face imprisonment. When they refused, officials arrested Sompong, three other leaders identified as Kai, Sisompu and Phuphet, and Kunkham, the 17-year-old daughter of Phuphet. Police took all five to a district prison and charged them with spreading the Christian faith and conducting a religious meeting without permission.
Police released them two days later after Christians from Savannakhet city intervened, arguing that the Boukham Christians were neither spreading their faith nor holding a public meeting – but simply worshiping God in a private residence. The five were ordered to pay a fine of 350,000 kip (then US$42) for expenses related to the arrest.
Officials re-arrested Sompong along with two other leaders in August 2008. Although Boukham’s chief had threatened to sentence them to life terms in a maximum security prison and ordered family members to renounce their faith, local and international advocacy efforts secured their release in October 2008.
The present chief of Boukham has been in office for just six months and has not shown any antagonism towards Christian residents until now, HRWLRF told Compass.