Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Laos
India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, Pakistan, Indonesia
Panel: Findings from South Asia, with Dr. Paul Bhatti, Advisor to the Prime Minister of Pakistan for Minority Affairs
Moderator: Chad Bauman, Butler University
Speakers: Robert Hefner, Boston University
James Ponniah, University of Madras
Reginald Reimer, Expert on Christianity in Vietnam & Laos
Sara Singha, Georgetown University
Christians comprise less than 3 percent of Laos’s population of seven million: Catholics claim some 65,000 believers, and estimates of evangelicals vary between 100,000 and 150,000. Most Christians belong to ethnic minorities such as Kammu, Hmong, Mien, and Bru, although ethnic Lao—about half the national population—are also among the believers, as are long-time residents of Vietnamese and Chinese origin. All sections of these diverse Christian communities appear to be growing, though not as rapidly as in the 1990s. The most rapid expansion is clearly among ethnic minorities.
History of the Lao Christian Community
Catholicism in Laos dates to French colonization in the nineteenth century, and the evangelical movement began not long after. In the 1950s, a noteworthy evangelical breakthrough occurred among the Lao Hmong in particular. After the Communist takeover in 1975, however, a powerful anti-religious sentiment began that still endures today. Many Christian leaders fled the country at this time, and the disorganized Lao Evangelical Church and most of its members stayed quiet and kept a very low profile. Because of this, Lao Christians faced less persecution than those in neighboring Vietnam. However, when the Lao Evangelical Church rose again in the 1990s, the government responded by arresting leaders, closing churches, and requiring Christians to sign an oath renouncing their faith or face prosecution. A few Christians were murdered or disappeared during this decade.
While the major tenets of Marxist economics were discarded more than two decades ago, the anti-religion ones are still seen by communist rulers as a necessary plank for political and social control. This bias against religion is augmented by the legacy of the Vietnam War, which affects Laos’s attitude toward and treatment of evangelical Christians especially. Even four decades later, evangelicals in Laos are portrayed as related to the ongoing goals of the unnamed “enemy”—a.k.a. the United States. All religious institutions are strictly regulated.
Since the year 2000, the situation has slowly improved for all religious communities in Laos. However, there have been regular reports that some ethnic minority Christians have been forced from their homes and ordered to move to places where there are other Christians in order to retain Christian-free zones. Some have been detained and fined, and some places of worship have been closed for lacking official permission. The Bru minority is one group that has experienced particular persecution in recent years.
A Summary of Christian Responses to Persecution in Laos
The predominant response to the persecution of Christians in Laos is one of survival and endurance, accepting persecution as a central dimension of the Christian life and persisting in worship and evangelization. At times, however, Christians in Laos also employ strategies of association and confrontation.
In some cases, survival has meant leaving the country altogether. After the communist takeover, for instance, most Lao Christians either fled or dramatically reduced their visibility in order to avoid persecution. A large number escaped to Thailand, particularly the Hmong ethnic minority, which comprised the largest group of refugees from Laos. In fact, all but one Hmong pastor left the country at this time. But fleeing, while it removed people from the immediate threat of persecution, presented other obvious difficulties, including lack of shelter, and food and job security.
Christians who remained in Laos have developed strategies for maintaining existing communities. During waves of crackdown, as in the late 1990s when many house churches were raided and leaders interrogated, evangelicals found that by breaking into smaller groups, rotating locations, and changing meeting times they could often evade authorities. Some even found opportunities to respectfully explain their faith to their interrogators, although, in the face of persecution and fear, others recanted.
At times, Christians in Laos have also responded to discrimination, persecution, and repression by pushing back against it. Though success has been modest, the most successful strategies involve building respectful relationships with government officials and nudging for small, incremental changes. For instance, the general secretary of the dominant Lao Evangelical Church (LEC), Rev. Khamphone Pounthapanya, spent years in a prison/re-education camp following the communist takeover, and while there he earned the trust of his jailers and was given many privileges. His earlier good relations with authorities have given him access to officials to negotiate and advocate on behalf of the LEC. Though he has made some suspicious by declining to use his influence to help church groups other than his own, overall, observers agree his contribution to government understanding and tolerance for the Christian movement has been substantial.
In recent decades, Lao Christians have also been aided by international advocates such as the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), which has cultivated respectful relationships with top Lao diplomats, officials, and scholars in the interest of religious dialogue and has conducted provincial-level peace-building seminars for local government and religious leaders. Whether such advocacy has produced any real change in government policy or action, however, remains to be seen. Overall, Lao Christians do not trust the government to keep any promises they may make regarding religious freedom.