On Friday, Dec. 16, eight Christian leaders who had gathered with some 200 church members for a Christmas celebration were arrested. Four of the detainees were placed in handcuffs and wooden stocks, while the other four were left unrestrained. Family members were allowed to bring blankets and other provisions to the detainees, but were given no explanation for their arrest, according to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF.)
It is generally a custom for Lao Christians to hold Christmas celebrations before or after Dec. 25 in order to avoid drawing the attention of authorities. But according to HRWLRF, these leaders had secured permission for Friday’s event from Boukham’s village chief and invited him to attend. He stayed for the Christmas meal but left before the sermon began. After the sermon, at about 9 p.m., village security forces entered the building, isolated the eight leaders and marched them to the Boukham government headquarters, where they were detained without charge. “While they were held without formal charges, it is quite clear that they were arrested for gathering people for worship,” an HRWLRF spokesman told Compass.
On Saturday morning, Dec. 17, Bouthong sub-district police arrived to investigate the incident and record the names of the detainees. The content the discussion between village leaders and the sub-district police remains unknown, but when police left the village, the chief ordered the other four unrestrained detainees to be placed in stocks as well, HRWLRF reported.
Later that afternoon, the deputy chairman of the Savannakhet branch of the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC), the only Protestant group recognized by the government, came to plead for the detainees’ release, but his efforts proved fruitless. Then, the following g morning, Lao Evangelical Church representatives managed to negotiate the release of one of the detainees held in stocks after paying a fine of 1 million kip (US$123) to the village chief. By comparison, the average monthly wage for an unskilled laborer in the province is close to US$40.
The village chief later told the detainees that they had violated “hiit,” or the traditional spirit cult of the village, by gathering for a Christian worship service. He then ordered them not to practice Christianity in Boukham for fear that the spirits would be offended, HRWLRF reported. Under hiit, residents must worship and placate the spirits of the village to ensure the fertility of their fields and to ensure ongoing safety and prosperity for their families. Many believe that the departure of a few people from this practice will bring distress for the entire village.
Boukham’s chief asked the detainees to admit their guilt and agree not to worship Christ in the village, but all seven refused, according to HRWLRF.
Since the district authorities have not publicly chastised village officials, “the case could get complicated, and the Christians will suffer in the process,” the HRWLRF’s spokesman said, adding that public advocacy was the best way to direct attention to their plight and perhaps secure their release.
Father, we know that the fight is not against flesh and blood, but as the season to celebrate the birth of Your Son is upon us, the battle appears to be more intense. Strengthen our brothers and sisters in Laos who are facing opposition; fill them with Your Spirit. And Father, please give all Christians in Laos wisdom and discernment as they hold fast to the Word of life and press on toward the goal in Jesus Christ. Amen