There were reports religious believers were subjected to attempted forced renunciations, imprisonment, and detention. The government structure was relatively decentralized, and central government control over provincial and district governments remained limited. The government’s respect for religious freedom varied by region and by religious group. Some local officials were unaware of central government policies on topics such as religious tolerance. Even when they were aware of the laws, local officials sometimes failed to implement them.
Both local and central government officials referred to the constitution, the prime minister’s decree, and social harmony as reasons for restricting and overseeing religious activity, especially the activities of new or small Protestant groups among minority ethnic groups.
Authorities arrested and detained people for their religious activities. In some cases local officials threatened Protestants with arrest or expulsion from their villages if they did not comply with certain orders.
Persons arrested for alleged religion-related offenses, as with all criminal offenses, had little protection under the law. Detainees could be held for lengthy periods without trial and then released. There were no reports any cases involving religion-related charges reached the courts.
In March there were reports officials in Bokeo Province arrested a Christian after relatives reported his religious conversion to officials. In prison, the guards reportedly forced him to pay for his food as a way of pressuring him to recant his faith and released him after 10 days of incarceration.
In June in Atsaphangthong District, Savannakhet Province, one Christian reportedly refused to take another Christian woman to the hospital and instead he and four other Christians performed healing rituals on the woman. When the woman subsequently died, officials arrested all five Christians. Although four of the five individuals arrested were not involved in transporting (or failing to transport) the woman, who died on the way to the hospital, all five Christians remained detained without charges at the end of the year.
In Songkhone District, Savannakhet Province, officials detained 23 Christians in May for illegally congregating. Authorities released 11 of them after one day’s detention and released the other 12 after 17 days’ detention. Local authorities reportedly said Christians in that area had not received permission to hold worship services; however, the Christians said they had received permission to congregate approximately one year before from the former village chief.
In November in Long District, Luang Namtha Province, officials reportedly detained seven Christians for illegally congregating without a permit. LFNC officials reported these individuals were later released after several weeks in detention.
There were reports of officials restricting the right of individuals to hold certain religious beliefs, including forced renunciations.
In October officials in Phin District, Savannakhet Province, reportedly approached Christians in various villages to ask them to sign documents denouncing their faith. Authorities had previously arrested village pastors, and there were reports of threats of further arrest if the Christians declined to sign the documents.
In October police reportedly ordered two men in Nong Luan village, near Hongsa town in Xayaburi Province, to recant their faith, stop telling others about their faith, and stop meeting with other believers in the village and in Hongsa. When the men refused, they were forced to affix with thumb prints a document agreeing to these restrictions. Additionally, a local Christian pastor of Khmu ethnicity in Hongsa reportedly stopped teaching in Nong Luan village after police threats.
In January local officials in Vientiane Province reportedly pressured 27 Christian families to recant their faith. They were reportedly coerced into signing a paper saying they agreed with the officials’ demands to renounce their faith.
The government hampered or prevented some religious groups from importing or possessing Bibles and religious materials, as well as constructing houses of worship. Non-Buddhist religious group leaders stated their activities were limited by requirements to obtain permission, sometimes from several different offices, for a broad range of activities, such as congregating, building a church, modifying existing structures, and establishing new congregations in villages where none existed.
In May officials in Donpalai village, Atsaphangthong District, Savannakhet Province, reportedly raided a worship service and confiscated 53 Bibles from worshipers.
Although groups not registered with the LFNC were not allowed to practice their faith legally, several did so quietly without interference. Protestant groups seeking recognition as separate from the LEC continued to be the targets of restrictions, and authorities in several provinces insisted that independent congregations must join the LEC. In many areas, however, unauthorized churches were allowed to conduct services without hindrance by local authorities. Both the LEC and the central government denied Methodists’ continued attempts to separate from the umbrella of the LEC.
The government required religious groups to report membership information periodically to the Religious Affairs Department of the LFNC.
According to Muslim community leaders, Muslims were able to practice openly at the two active mosques. Muslim Association leaders met regularly with LFNC officials and maintained an effective working relationship with the government. Daily prayers and the weekly Friday prayer proceeded unobstructed, and all Islamic celebrations were allowed. Muslims were permitted to go on the Hajj. The government permitted groups from Thailand to conduct Tabligh teachings.
While animists generally reported little governmental interference, the government actively discouraged animist practices it deemed outdated, dangerous, or illegal, such as the practice in some tribes of killing children born with defects or burying the bodies of deceased relatives beneath homes.
The government typically refused to acknowledge any religious freedom abuses by its officials. Government authorities often blamed the victims rather than the persecuting officials. Even when central government officials acknowledged certain actions, they often said the actions taken by local officials were not based on religion, but on local officials’ duty to maintain order.
The government promoted the teaching of Buddhist practices in public schools as part of Lao culture. Mandatory cultural sessions included lessons taught in Buddhist temples. Although the Ministry of Education and Sports stated both that parents may opt out if they were dissatisfied with the program and there was no Buddhist curriculum in any public schools, in practice there were Buddhist lessons taught in several provinces. Christian students noted discomfort with being forced to pray in Buddhist temples as part of the requirement to pass to the next grade level. Sources reported on one occasion local officials threatened to deny educational benefits, including the opportunity to take college entrance exams, to the children of Protestants because of their religious beliefs.
The LFNC and MHA occasionally visited areas where abuses of religious freedom had taken place to instruct local officials on government policy and law. More often, however, the LFNC’s Religious Affairs Department encouraged local or provincial governments to resolve conflicts on their own in accordance with the prime ministerial decree. The LFNC sometimes negotiated with local officials when worshipers were detained for religious reasons.
As many as 200 of the LEC’s more than 480 congregations throughout the country did not have permanent church structures and conducted worship services in homes. The LFNC’s Religious Affairs Department continued to urge that home churches be replaced with designated church structures whenever possible, and local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal. Protestant groups, however, reported they sometimes could not obtain permission to build new churches. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs there was a moratorium on permits to build new Christian churches pending new amendments to the prime ministerial decree. Religious group representatives pointed out the building permit process began at the local level and then required district-, provincial-, and ultimately central-level LFNC and MHA permission. They said local officials used the process to block construction of new churches. In a few cases, villages allowed construction of new church buildings without prior official permission from higher-level authorities.
There were reports Protestants in some villages were not allowed to hold Christian services in their homes, thus restricting Protestant activities to church buildings only. This restriction particularly affected Protestants who had not been given approval to build church structures in their villages due to a moratorium on permits. For example, the five Christians who were arrested in June in Atsaphangthong District, Savannakhet Province, after a woman died on the way to the hospital, were detained on charges of holding an illegal church congregation in a building without a permit.
Officials in Xayaburi District, Savannakhet Province, continued to prohibit worshipers from accessing previously confiscated Christian churches in Dongpaiwan village, Nadaeng, Kengweng, and Khamnonsung, citing the lack of official registration. No additional churches were confiscated. Provincial, district, and local officials, as well as DERA and LFNC representatives, participated in town hall meetings with local Protestant leaders and community leaders to discuss the issues involved in the confiscations and seek resolution of the conflict in the Xayaburi District villages. Local Protestant leaders expressed frustration over the arduous registration process that led to the conflicts, while local community leaders expressed their desire to use the buildings as a school for all children in the community, regardless of their faith. Authorities did not allow Christian groups to hold holiday services in the churches, and the groups had not received official registration for their church facilities by year’s end.
Representatives of Bahai communities in Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang said they generally practiced without interference, and Bahai groups faced few restrictions from local authorities. Local Bahai communities and the Bahai National Spiritual Assembly routinely held Bahai Nineteen-Day Feasts and celebrated all holy days without interference. The Bahai National Spiritual Assembly in Vientiane met regularly and sent delegations to the Universal House of Justice in Israel.
In Savannakhet and Champasak Provinces, Catholics said the government restricted them from obtaining government jobs and being promoted.
The government strictly enforced the legal prohibition on proselytizing by foreigners. The LFNC granted permission for some foreign religious leaders to organize educational meetings, but did not grant broad permission to proselytize without restriction.
The government permitted the printing, import, and distribution of Buddhist religious material, but restricted the publication of religious materials by most other religious groups. The printing and importation of non-Buddhist religious texts from abroad required LFNC permission. While some groups were able to print their own religious materials, the government did not allow the printing of Bibles, and their importation for distribution in limited quantities required special permission.
LFNC and MHA officials frequently traveled to the provinces to encourage religious groups to practice in accordance with the country’s laws and regulations. They also provided training to local officials throughout the nation in February, May, July, and October to explain officials’ obligations under the constitution and the right to believe or not to believe in religion. During these sessions, LFNC and MHA officials learned about religious law and participated in education seminars that reviewed the basic tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, the Bahai Faith, and Islam from religious leaders.
While the government did not recognize an official state religion, it exempted Buddhism from many restrictions, including requirements to obtain approval for people to congregate. The government sponsored Buddhist facilities, incorporated Buddhist ritual and ceremony in state functions, and promoted Buddhism as an element of the country’s cultural and spiritual identity; it also promoted Lao culture, which included Buddhist practices. Government officials attended some Buddhist religious festivals and Christmas celebrations in their official capacity.
According to the government and religious leaders, in an effort to promote consultation among all stakeholders concerning revisions to the prime ministerial decree, the LFNC and MHA organized meetings for religious group representatives in January in Vientiane. The meetings involved discussion about the government’s plan to amend the decree, and provided an opportunity for religious groups, line ministries, and mass organizations to offer suggestions for its revision.
In collaboration with the LFNC, the nongovernmental organization Institute for Global Engagement conducted training for provincial and district officials and local religious leaders in August and October to help both sides better understand each other and the law.
The Catholic bishop in Luang Prabang registered and constructed a church building with the support of local authorities. The church was able to expand charitable activities and provided assistance to a school for the deaf in Luang Prabang.