Universe Column for February 2nd 2003
By David Alton
Work with the Jubilee campaign has just taken me to the Burma border, Laos and Vietnam.
Regular readers of this column will be aware of the harrowing plight of the Karen tribes people who have been slaughtered in their thousands by the Burmese military. The Catholic human rights campaigner, James Mawdsley, has ensured that the world knows their story.
The Universe has also documented the suffering of the Church in Vietnam – where Cardinal Francis Xavier Van Thuan spent 13 years in communist prisons. He died at the end of last year.
Less well known is Laos.
Laos, a landlocked land wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, suffered great economic hardship during the Vietnam war and its aftermath. In fact, Laos remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. Since 1998, the communist government’s tactics to rid the country of Christians has been brutal and systematic.
Yet unlike its Vietnamese counterpart, there is greater reason for hope. Laos provides evidence that where we apply consistent political and economic pressure on behalf of those who suffer for their faith, it can eventually bring progress. In summer of 2002 the gates to the prisons were literally thrown open to many Christians who were imprisoned for their faith. And in July 2002, the Laotian government passed laws that gave official recognition to the Lao Evangelical Churches. While a number of Christians remain in jail, this is an unprecedented turn of events.
Yet, while believers may feel a little more secure, the implication is that every other Christian group not covered by these laws is illegal.
The new laws allow more freedom for the existing churches – such as the Catholic Church – to assemble and practice their faith among themselves. However, the negative side is that these same laws restrict the Christian outreach activities of evangelization and bringing new believers into the church.
In one all too typical case, two years ago a Christian leader, Mr. Pa Tood, was detained in Savannakhet City Jail. He was offered bail on the condition that he give up his Christian faith, which he refused to do. As punishment, he was put in solitary confinement with one leg in wooden stocks 24 hours a day. His legs became swollen and his health suffered badly. He was often deprived of food for several days. Pa Tood’s wife, Koom, was arrested with her baby on 17th March 1999 and deprived of food in jail. She had a nervous breakdown after 7 days and was eventually released.
Jubilee Campaign has also received information that the central government of Laos has sent secret orders to local authorities to close down the churches in the whole country starting in the countryside.
Aid to the Church in Need, says that, although the national constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the communist government severely restricts religious practice. Citizens are pressured not to convert to Catholicism. Building permits for new churches will not be issued. And large meeting require advance notice to the government and a list of participants.
Some observers also believe that the Lao Churches recognised under these new laws might become like the official government controlled Protestant and Catholic churches in China, where churches are tightly controlled by the state and any attempt to spread their faith is strictly curtailed. So the news from Laos is like the proverbial Curate’s Egg – “it’s there in parts” – some good, some bad. The jury is still out on whether the welcome relaxations represent the beginning of a new era of toleration and openness.
Laos Releases Detained Christians Ahead of the Visit by First Ever Joint Congressman-Member of the House of Lords Delegation, Which Raised Religious Freedom Issues to Laotian Authorities
On January 22, 2003, a Jubilee Campaign delegation lead by U. S. Congressman Joseph Pitts and Lord David Alton, Member of the British House of Lords, arrived in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos. Hours ahead of a luncheon hosted by the National Assembly of Laos for the delegation, Laotian authorities in Savannakhet Province released the remaining six Christians from the Kankock Village Church who were jailed for holding Christmas meetings.
One Evangelical leader with whom we met commented that the release came earlier then expected because “they knew you were coming.” Several church leaders commented that although working through the Central Government and the Ministry of Religious Affairs is slow, there does seem to be a warming of cooperation from the Lao Front for National Construction which rules the country.
Nevertheless, at the District level and especially within certain Provinces hostilities toward Christians seem deeply rooted. The Jubilee Campaign delegation had been briefed in advance of traveling to Laos concerning the details of a number of recent arrests. On December 27, 2002, authorities arrested 26 Christians, 15 women from Khamsaan Church and two leaders from Savannakhet Church who went to Dongpoong Church on December 26. All 17 women were released the following day. The same day authorities raided two other churches in the same area, arresting nine more from Dongpoon, Dongpyvan, Gengveng, and Nadeng Villages, including 75- year old grandparents. These nine believers were detained for nine days before being released. Then on January 10, authorities arrested six believers in Pongseema village for taking part in a Christmas service at their church. They were fined the equivalent of $12 and released. On January 15, five women were arrested for holding a Christmas service in the village of Kankock, Champon District and were released the next day. Also on January 15, the same authorities arrested six more believers from Kengkok village on the same charge, who were held in the Jampon District Prison until their release ahead of the Congressional delegation visit. For some of these Christians, this is the fifth or sixth time they have been arrested for practicing their faith.
Since authorities closed all Evangelical church buildings in Savannakhet Province in 1999, the local police charged that the Christmas celebrations were illegal meetings. However, in the summer of 2002, the government released over 30 Christian leaders, announced that churches could meet again, and ordered churches to reopen.
Lao Front government ministers with whom we met attempted to explain the inconsistent polices and in light of the recent Christmas arrests to the Jubilee Campaign delegation, declaring them as symptomatic of differing local interpretations of national laws and the need for the country to establish improved rule of law.
In our meeting with the Lao Front for National Construction Vice President and Governor of Vientiane Province, Dr. Siho Bannavong, the Governor explained that it is not legal to meet in a house together for any purpose without permission. He explained that the Christmas arrests were a misunderstanding and for that reason all were released. After further probing by Congressman Pitts and Lord Alton concerning the inconsistencies of the arrests and fines, Governor Siho provided our delegation with copies of the “Decree On Management and Protection of Religious Activities in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic” promulgated by the Prime Minister in late 2002. Governor Siho said that this law is being distributed to the local level.
When Lord Alton reviewed various of the provisions which could be arbitrarily interpreted and applied such as the requirement to register “…movable and immovable properties of each religion…” or seeking approval for all religious activities, Governor Siho admitted that some people are opposed to the decree and could misinterpret its requirements.
Some church leaders noted to our delegation that although churches were asked to register, some of the house churches refused to register in order to maintain the freedom to worship without government interference and out of fear and lack of trust toward local authorities who had exercised abuse before and after the Central Government announced its new registration policy. In an orchestrated crackdown on the Evangelical church within Savannakhet Province, authorities began to systematically close and arrest church leaders in 1999. Upwards of 60 leaders were imprisoned in that area between 1999 and July 2002. Despite the risk, many church leaders are carefully reviewing the decree and accept the invitation to provide recommended revisions to the decree.
The Jubilee Campaign delegation also raised the plight of Mr. Keo in all four official government meetings. We learned that Mr. Keo, an Evangelist ministering in Attapu District, Attapu Province had suffered four previous arrests. After his last release in 2002, he continued to share his faith and allowed his house to be used as a church meeting place. Currently, local authorities are trying to force him to recant and stop spreading Christianity by threatening to expel him and his family from this Province if he does not recant. The Governor of Attapu Province has a reputation for being very strict toward the Evangelical Church. We requested that his case be investigated and that Mr. Keo be permitted to practice his religion in peace.
Finally, the Jubilee Campaign delegation called for the release of two pastors first arrested in 1999 in Oudomxai Province. That year, three pastors, Tchong Chan (63), Yot (64), and Lil (65), were arrested and charged as “traitors”. Pastor Tchong was sentenced to 15 years and the other two to 12 years each. Two of these pastors remain imprisoned, although Pastor Lil died in prison last year.