The sentencing of five Christians by a provincial court in February was met with harsh criticism from local and international organizations for human rights. The five ended up in jail for nine months for ‘illegal medical practices’ because they prayed – at her request – for the health of a woman near death.
As evidenced by Sirkoon Prasertsee, Director of Human Rights Watcher for Lao Religious Freedom, based in the United States, “the message that the Savannakhet court sent to the Christians in Laos is that the authorities can, from now on, criminalise prayer meetings for the sick and suffering”. For Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for Asia, the decision was a clear example of the lack of government commitment to the protection of the rights of religious minorities.
Two reactions that introduce the issue of the rights denied to religious groups with clarity, particularly those of the the minority ones.
As Robertson again recalls, “the history of religious freedom in the country leaves much to be desired, especially when it comes to pressure and repression imposed on each congregation or group that has not been officially authorized to operate”. “Given the approximation of the Decree on religious practice, which outlaws any religious practice which according to the authorities can be considered to be creating ‘social division’ or ‘chaos’, without clearly defining these terms, it results in a practical impunity for local officials who prosecute minority religious groups at will”.
Confirmation of this came from the 2013 report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom which recognizes some forms of progress but also that these are partial. “Over the past five years, the conditions for religious freedom have improved for the majority Buddhist groups and for religious activities in urban areas, but provincial officials continue to violate the religious freedoms of Protestant groups through detention, control, pressure, confiscation of property and renunciation of faith by compulsion”, the report indicates.
A country of many resources and very many ethnic groups, but politically subservient to a single party, Laos restricts its faiths in silence, often in repression. Christian enclaves, the heirs of the missionary activity started in this region in 1630 by the Jesuits and in a more consistent fashion, since 1878, by the Paris Foreign Missions and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and by a later Protestant presence, are found especially among its minorities. The total number of baptized is consistent, considering the historical and cultural characteristics of the entire region (150 thousand, of which less than half are Catholics organized in the apostolic vicariates of Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Paksé and Savannakhet).
The announcement at the beginning of May of the Vatican recognition of the martyrdom of Oblate Father Mario Borzaga and the lay catechist Paul Paul Thoj Xyooj, killed in 1960 by the Pathet Lao, are today of encouragement for the meagre local Church. “We are very happy … we await the results of the second cause of beatification, still open, which covers 15 other martyrs, including missionaries and lay Laotians”, said the apostolic vicar of Paksé, Msgr. Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun. “We would like to celebrate the beatification for all at the same time … it would be an event of great Christian witness that would involve the entire Church in Laos and we hope to be able to host a celebration in the country also”. The recognition of martyrdom “is really a gift to the small Church in Laos”, said Msgr. Mangkhanekhoun.
In as much as religious minorities are recording some openings in their regard, both with respect to their internal needs, and their relations with other countries, the official policy denies them even a supporting role in the evolution of the country. The basic face of Laos remains communist and Buddhist together and Buddhism represents for Laotians both an identifying element and a unique alternative strength to the political power. It is quite normal for each Laotian male to spend some period of his life in a monastery as a novice and this, plus the attachment of the population to the doctrine of the Buddha and its support for Buddhist institutions, means gaining merits and continuing more readily on the Path of Liberation. One goes to the monks for the daily rituals, festive occasions and the times of transition in personal and social life; monasteries and temples are subject to the benevolence of the government that often in recent history has used weapons of repression and blackmail to silence protests and claims. The monks, who continue the tradition of morning alms seeking and who with their rituals and celebrations do in fact still mark a good part of individual and social life, are sought for the daily rituals, festive occasions and important moments of passage of individual and collective life. However, the monasteries and temples are placed under government control, which is not always peaceful.