The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricts this right in practice. Some government officials committed abuses of citizens' religious freedom.
The Government's poor record of respect for religious freedom improved moderately during the period covered by this report. The Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), the popular front organization for the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), is responsible for oversight of religious practice. The LFNC's efforts to instruct local officials to tolerate minority religions contributed to a decrease in arrests and forced renunciations of Christianity in some areas that previously had experienced significant abuse of Christian congregations. In addition, although authorities continued to close some Protestant churches in several provinces, the number of church closings was fewer than in the period covered by the previous report. In the beginning of 2002, authorities allowed some of these closed churches to reopen. However, problems remained and officials in some localities continued to attempt to force believers to renounce their faith, although no instances of forced renunciation were reported after December 2001. There were 6 known religious prisoners and 13 detainees, all Christians, at the end of the period covered by this report.
There were generally amicable relations among the various religious groups in society; however, officials have reported that tensions over religious practice occasionally occurred in some villages, often resulting from conflicts over use of village resources or from proselytizing. Since many adherents of minority religions are ethnic minorities, conflicts between ethnic groups also have contributed to religious tensions.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. U.S. Embassy representatives discussed the need for greater religious freedom at senior as well as at working levels of the central Government and the LPRP, and remained in frequent contact with religious leaders.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of approximately 85,000 square miles, and its estimated population is approximately 5.2 million. Approximately 60 to 65 percent of the population, most of whom are lowland Lao, follow Theravada Buddhism. Followers of animism, the second largest religion, are estimated at 30 percent of the population, and are found among Lao Theung (mid-slope dwelling) and Lao Soung (highland) minority tribes. Animist beliefs and practices greatly vary between tribes. Among lowland Lao, particularly in the countryside, there is both a certain syncretistic practice of, and tolerance for, animist customs among those who devote themselves to Buddhist beliefs and rituals. Christians, including Roman Catholics, constitute approximately 2 percent of the population. Other minority religions include the Baha'i Faith, Islam, Mahayana Buddhism, and Confucianism. A very small number of citizens follow no religion.
In Vientiane there are five Mahayana Buddhist pagodas, two serving the Lao-Vietnamese community and three serving the Lao-Chinese community. Buddhist monks from Vietnam, China, and India have visited these pagodas freely to conduct services and to minister to worshipers. There are at least four more large Mahayana Buddhist pagodas in other urban centers. There also are unconfirmed reports of other smaller Mahayana pagodas in villages near the borders of Vietnam and China. Buddhist nuns reportedly serve some of these pagodas. Whether a monk could reside permanently in any of these pagodas is unknown; the key determinant appears to be the expense for the congregation. Reportedly one Mahayana pagoda in Pakse has at least one monk from Vietnam in residence at all times.
The Roman Catholic Church has a following of 30,000 to 40,000 adherents, many of whom are ethnic Vietnamese, concentrated in major urban centers along the Mekong River. The Catholic church is unable to operate effectively in the highlands and much of the north because churches are not allowed to register, and worship services are restricted in some areas. The Catholic church has an established presence in five of the most populous central and southern provinces, where Catholics are able to worship openly. However, the Catholic church's activities are circumscribed in the north, and a once thriving Catholic community in Luang Prabang province now is moribund. There are three bishops, located in Vientiane, Thakhek, and Pakse, who were able to visit Rome to confer with other bishops and the Pope. A fourth bishop, for the northern part of the country, has not been allowed to take up his post in Luang Prabang and remains in residence in Vientiane. A Catholic training center in Thakhek is training a small number of priests to serve the Catholic community. In addition several foreign nuns have served temporarily in the Vientiane diocese.
Approximately 250 to 300 Protestant congregations conducted services throughout the country for a Protestant community that has grown rapidly in the past decade; church officials estimate Protestants number approximately 60,000. The LFNC recognizes two Protestant groups: the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC), which is the umbrella Protestant Church, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The LFNC strongly encourages all other Protestant groups to become part of the LEC church. Most Protestants belong to the LEC church. The majority of Protestants are members of ethnic Mon-Khmer tribes; however, in recent years, many lowland Lao have become converts, and many ethnic Hmong also are Protestants. Most of the LEC church membership is concentrated in Vientiane municipality, in the provinces of Vientiane, Sayaboury, Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang, Bolikhamsai, Savannakhet, Champassak, Attapeu, and in the Saisomboun Special Zone, but smaller congregations are found throughout the country. The Seventh-Day Adventist congregation numbers approximately 700 followers in Vientiane and in the south. The Government has granted permission to four Protestant congregations from the two approved denominations to have church buildings in the Vientiane area. In addition the LEC church maintains properties in Savannakhet and Pakse. Several LEC church properties in Savannakhet and Pakse were seized by the Government after 1975, but were returned to the church in the early 1990's. Two informal churches, one English-speaking and one Korean-speaking, service Vientiane's foreign Christian community.
Within the LEC church, some congregations seek greater independence and have forged their own connections with Protestant groups abroad. As the LEC church has grown, an increased diversity of views has emerged among adherents and pastors; however, the Government is unlikely to approve the registration of a separate denomination.
There are approximately 400 adherents of Islam in the country, the vast majority of whom are foreign permanent residents of Middle Eastern and Cambodian (Cham) origin. There are two active mosques in Vientiane that minister to the Sunni and Shafie branches of Islam.
The Baha'i Faith has more than 1,200 adherents and four centers: two in Vientiane municipality, one in Vientiane province, and one in Pakse. Small groups of followers of Confucianism and Taoism practice their beliefs in the larger cities.
Although the Government prohibits foreigners from proselytizing, there were reports that a very small number of both foreign missionaries and citizens were engaged in missionary work during the period covered by this report.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the authorities, particularly at the local level, interfere with this right in practice. Article 30 of the Constitution provides for freedom of religion, however, Article 9 discourages all acts that create divisions among religions and persons. The LPRP and the Government appear to interpret this constitutional provision narrowly, and consequently inhibit religious practice by all persons, especially those belonging to minority religions. Although official pronouncements accept the existence of different religions, they emphasize the potential to divide, distract, or destabilize. Many local officials, as well as some senior officials in the central Government and the LPRP, appear to interpret Article 9 as justification to prohibit proselytizing and to discourage religious conversions, especially to Christianity.
The absence of rule of law has created an atmosphere in which authorities may act with impunity against persons regarded as posing a threat to social order. Religious practitioners arrested for their religious activities have been charged with exaggerated security or other criminal offenses. Persons detained may be held for lengthy periods without trial. Court judges, not juries, decide guilt or innocence in court cases, and an accused person's defense rights are limited. A person arrested or convicted for religious offenses has little protection under the law. All religious groups, including Buddhists, practice their faith in an atmosphere in which the application of the law is arbitrary. Certain actions interpreted by officials as threatening may bring harsh punishment. Religious practice is "free" only if the practitioners stay within tacitly-understood guidelines of what is "acceptable" to the Government and the LPRP.
To establish clearer guidelines than those provided by the Constitution on the rights and obligations of religious faiths, the Department of Religious Affairs in the LFNC drafted regulations for religious organizations in late 1999. Subsequently, numerous government agencies as well as senior leaders of the major religious groups reviewed the draft regulations. Following a series of reviews and modifications, some made at the request of religious leaders, the regulations were forwarded to the Office of the Prime Minister in late 2001 for preparation to issue them as a Prime Ministerial Decree. The Prime Minister's Office reportedly was reviewing the final drafts of the regulations but had yet to promulgate the new rules by the end of the period covered by this report. Although religious leaders who have read the draft regulations generally have concluded that they will have a positive effect on religious freedom, some critics who have reviewed them believe that they will continue to limit religious freedom.
The Constitution provides that the State "mobilizes and encourages" monks, novices, and priests of other religions to participate in activities "beneficial to the nation and the people." The Department of Religious Affairs in the LFNC is responsible for overseeing all religions. Although the Government does not require registration, all functioning religious groups report to the Department of Religious Affairs quarterly. Reports of activities effectively constitute a system of approval; the approval process for new facilities is bureaucratic, time consuming, and results in few new facilities. Some groups do not submit applications for establishment of places of worship because they do not believe that their applications will be approved.
Although the State is secular in both name and practice, members of the LPRP and governmental institutions pay close attention to Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced by more than 60 percent of the population. The Government's observation, control of clergy, training support, and oversight of temples and other facilities constitute less a form of favoritism than a means to supervise, limit and monitor religious freedoms among the dominant Buddhist faith. Many persons regard Buddhism as both an integral part of the national culture and as a way of life.
Animists generally experienced no interference from the Government in their religious practices. However, the Government actively discourages animist practices that it regards as outdated, unhealthy, or illegal, such as the practice in some tribes of infanticide of infants born with defects or of keeping the bodies of deceased relatives in homes.
Although the Government does not recognize the Vatican, the Papal Nuncio visits from Bangkok, Thailand and coordinates with the Government on assistance programs, especially for lepers and the disabled.
All persons in the Islamic community appear to be able to practice their faith openly, freely attending the two active mosques. Daily prayers and the weekly Jumaat prayer on Fridays proceed unobstructed and all Islamic celebrations are allowed. Citizens who are Muslims are able to go on the Hajj. Groups that conduct Tabligh teachings for the faithful come from Thailand once or twice per year. During the period covered by this report, the Government paid closer scrutiny to the activities of the small Muslim population, but did not interfere with the community's religious activities.
The small Seventh-Day Adventist Church has reported no government interference in its activities in recent years, and its members appear to be free to practice their faith.
Baha'i local spiritual assemblies and the national spiritual assembly routinely hold Baha'i 19-day feasts and celebrate all holy days. The national spiritual assembly meets regularly and is free to send a delegation to the Universal House of Justice in Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel.
There is no religious instruction in public schools, nor are there any parochial or religiously affiliated schools operating in the country. In practice many boys spend some time in Buddhist temples, where they receive instruction in religion as well as in academics. Temples traditionally have filled the role of schools and continue to play this role in smaller communities where formal education is limited or unavailable.
The Government has only one semi-religious holiday, Boun That Luang, which also is a major political and cultural celebration. However, the Government recognizes the popularity and cultural significance of Buddhist festivals, and most senior officials openly attend them. The Government permits major religious festivals of all established congregations without hindrance.
The Government requires and routinely grants permission for formal links with coreligionists in other countries. In practice the line between formal and informal links is blurred, and relations generally are established without much difficulty.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
The Government's tolerance of religion varied by region and by religion, with Christian Protestants continuing to be the target of most harassment. Although generally not subjected to harassment, the Buddhist hierarchy is subject to close oversight by the Government. In general central Government authorities appeared unable--and in some cases, unwilling--to control or mitigate harsh measures that were taken by some local or provincial authorities against members of minority religious denominations. However, the LFNC took measures during the period covered by this report to mitigate the arbitrary behavior of local officials in some areas where harassment of Christian religious minorities had been most severe. These efforts resulted in a few areas where there was notable improvement and others where there was only marginal or no improvement. Some parts of the country, especially urban areas, experienced little or no overt religious abuse. However, even in these areas, believers who actively proselytized or took leadership positions feared arrest or other harassment, given the lack of clear legal safeguards for religious minorities. Although there was almost complete freedom to worship among unregistered groups in a few areas, particularly in the largest cities, government authorities in many regions allowed properly registered religious groups to practice their faith only under circumscribed conditions.
In 2001 local authorities closed approximately 20 of Vientiane province's 60 LEC churches, primarily those in Hin Hoep, Feuang, and Vang Vieng districts. During 1999 and 2001, district and provincial authorities, supported by police, closed approximately 65 LEC churches in Savannakhet and Luang Prabang provinces. Many of these closed churches were allowed to reopen in 2002, especially in Vientiane province; however, the majority remained closed at the end of the period covered by this report.
Unlike in previous years, there were no reports that security forces in some villages set up roadblocks to prevent villagers from traveling to Sunday worship services. Previously many groups of coreligionists seeking to assemble in a new location were thwarted in attempts to meet, practice, or to celebrate major religious festivals.
Although in general officials in southern provinces were more tolerant of minority religious practice than in the north, some local harassment continued to persist. For example, many converts must undergo a series of harsh government interviews; however, after overcoming this initial barrier, the converts generally are permitted to practice their new faith unhindered.
The LEC church encountered difficulties registering new congregations and receiving permission to establish new places of worship or to expand existing facilities, including facilities in Vientiane; however, unlike in the previous reporting period, no other minority religious groups encountered such difficulties. Authorities appeared to be using these measures to limit the LEC churches' growth. Congregations that have been denied permission to establish churches often conduct informal services in members' homes. In addition authorities continued to require new denominations to join other religious groups having similar historical antecedents, despite clear differences between the groups' beliefs. The LFNC strongly encourages all Protestant groups to become a part of the LEC church and has not allowed other Protestant Churches, other than the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, to operate openly. Nonetheless, there are some practicing Protestant congregations that are not associated with the LEC church.
The authorities continued to remain suspicious of patrons of religious communities other than Buddhism, especially Christian groups, in part because these faiths do not share the high degree of direction and incorporation into the government structure that Theravada Buddhism experiences. Some authorities criticized Christianity in particular as a Western or imperialist "import" into the country. Local authorities, probably with the encouragement from some officials in the central Government or LPRP, appear to have singled out the LEC church as a target of harassment--the majority of church closings, arrest of religious leaders, and forced renunciations of faith have been directed against the LEC church. The LEC churches' rapid growth over the last decade, its contact with religious groups abroad, the active proselytizing on the part of some of its members, and its independence of central Government control all have contributed to the Government's and the LPRP's suspicion of the church's activities. Some authorities also have chosen to interpret Christian teachings of obedience to God as signifying disloyalty to the Government and Party. The membership of the LEC church is made up mostly of members of ethnic Mon-Khmer tribes and Hmong, two groups that historically have resisted central Government control, and this has contributed to the Government's and the LPRP's distrust of the church.
The Government restricted the celebration of major Christian holidays by some congregations. Some LEC church congregations in remote areas of Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, and Sayaboury provinces were not permitted to celebrate Christmas and Easter holidays during the period covered by this report. In addition local authorities in several areas on occasion attempted to force Christian communities to adhere to Buddhist practices by working on Sundays or resting on Buddhist holy days. There were no reports of official interference in or denial of permission to hold religious celebrations of other religious groups. Unlike in the period covered by the previous report, there were no reports of security forces stopping all large vehicles that carried multiple passengers during Sunday worship hours to prevent villagers from traveling to attend worship services.
The Catholic Church has experienced little overt harassment in recent years, but long-standing restrictions on its operations in the north have shut down the once thriving Catholic community in Luang Prabang and have left only a handful of small congregations in Sayaboury, Bokeo, and Luang Namtha. Authorities have refused to grant permission to the Bishop of Luang Prabang, who lives in Vientiane, to live in his own diocese. During the period covered by this report, authorities continued to restrict the Bishop's travel to his diocese, allowing him regular visits to Sayaboury province only. There are no ordained Catholic priests operating in the north. The former Catholic Church in Luang Prabang was seized by authorities after 1975 and has not been returned to the church. In the central and southern parts of the country, Catholic congregations are able to practice their religion freely.
The Government prohibits foreigners from proselytizing, although it permits foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with religious affiliations to work in the country. Foreigners caught distributing religious material may be arrested or deported. There is no prohibition against proselytizing by citizens; however, on several occasions, persons found proselytizing with religious material were subject to arrest for "creating social divisions." Nevertheless, religious followers do proselytize, resulting in new conversions.
The Government does not permit the printing of non-Buddhist religious texts or their distribution outside a congregation and restricts importation of foreign non-Buddhist religious texts and artifacts. On occasion authorities have seized religious material brought into the country from abroad. Persons bringing in religious material face possible arrest. Because of these restrictions, some approved Christian congregations have complained of difficulty obtaining Bibles and religious material.
The Government generally does not interfere with the travel of its citizens wishing to go abroad for short-term religious training; however, it requires that such travelers notify authorities of the purpose of their travel and obtain permission in advance. In practice many persons of all faiths travel abroad informally for religious training without obtaining advance permission or without informing authorities of the purpose of their travel. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the power to grant exit visas and usually grants them as a matter of routine. There is no evidence that the central Government investigated travelers on their return. Unlike in the period covered by the previous report, there were no reports of reprisals taken against persons traveling abroad in Savannakhet province.
Until recently government-issued identity cards reported the religious affiliations of all adult citizens. Newly issued cards do not specify religion, but are coming into use only gradually, and most persons still carry the old cards. Designation of religious affiliation has created difficulties for members of religious minorities, especially Christians. In many areas, minority believers are identified incorrectly as "Buddhist" on identity cards in what appears to be routine bureaucracy and indifference. However, Christians who seek to be identified properly often are denied this right. When police question members of groups assembling for religious purposes, if the improperly issued identity card does not confirm the stated reason for assembling, the bearer may be subject to additional scrutiny and questioning.
Some evidence suggests that the Government makes little effort to ameliorate existing societal discrimination against ethnic minorities when that social tension can be cited as a pretext to restrict religious activities.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
Authorities continued to arrest persons for their religious activities, although in smaller numbers than in previous years. Most detentions that occurred during the period covered by this report were of short duration, usually less than 2 months. A number of detainees arrested in 2001 were released in Attapeu, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang provinces. The greatest number of detainees at one time, including those sentenced and those arrested and detained without sentence, was approximately 40 in mid-2002. At the end of the period covered by this report there were 19 religious prisoners and detainees, all Christians. There were some reports that religious detainees were singled out for mistreatment while in confinement. Conditions in prisons are extremely harsh, and religious detainees have suffered as a result of inadequate food rations, lack of medical care, and cramped quarters.
There were several reports that authorities arrested or detained persons, often without charge, because they either held or attended unauthorized religious services. For example, in February 2002, a pastor was arrested in Vientiane province for conducting a religious service without authorization; the pastor was released after 1 month's detention following LFNC intervention. In January 2002, a senior church member was briefly detained in Vientiane province after speaking with foreign visitors. In March 2002, authorities in Savannakhet arrested and detained two LEC church pastors who were presiding at a funeral. The two were released after several weeks of detention, following the intervention of the LFNC. On June 9, 2002, officials in Somsaad village, Champhone district, detained 20 LEC church Christians who were attending a Sunday morning worship service in Savannakhet province. The detained were accused of holding an unauthorized meeting and taken to the district office; all 20 were released after several weeks' detention. On the same day, three LEC church leaders were arrested in Dongphoum village, Saybouli district, for conducting an unauthorized worship service. The three were being held in the district jail, reportedly in manacles, at the end of the period covered by this report. In June 2002, four ethnic Yao were arrested in Luang Namtha province for holding an unauthorized prayer service; the four reportedly were manacled in their cells at the end of the period covered by this report. On June 22, 2002, in Kasi district of Vientiane province, two ethnic Khmu church leaders were arrested in the village of Phonsida for conducting an "unauthorized" prayer service at the home of a sick church member; both leaders were in detention at the Kasi district jail at the end of the period covered by this report.
There also were reports that persons were arrested and detained without trial for other religious activities. For example, in April 2002, 11 Christian citizens of the country were arrested in Bokeo province when they reentered the country from Thailand with religious material. All 11 were subsequently released after paying small fines for bringing in "illegal" religious material.
The following persons were arrested for religious activities and remained in detention without charge at the end of the period covered by this report: Phiasong in Phongsali province; Keung, Ae Noi, Sonkan, Khamphone, Khamdaeng, and Khamthong in Savannakhet province; Sia Chay, Lu Oon, Su Chia and Nay Siaw in Luang Namtha, and Khamsay and Avin in Vientiane.
The following persons were tried and convicted, and remained in detention at the end of the period covered by this report: Sisamouth Sirisouk, Boonmi Gindavong, and Peto Onchanh in Luang Prabang province; Nyoht and Thongchanh arrested in Oudomxai province.
In Houaphanh province, authorities continued to detain a former military officer (Khamtanh Pousy) who had converted to Christianity before his arrest. Although Khamtanh was charged with "anti-government activities," some persons familiar with his case maintain that his arrest was due in part to his religious belief.
Unlike in the period covered by the previous report, there were no reports that authorities detained or deported foreigners for religious reasons.
Unlike in the period covered by the previous report, there were no reports that provincial authorities instructed their officials to monitor and arrest persons who professed belief in Islam or the Baha'i Faith.
Until late 2001, officials in some areas of Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Savannakhet provinces continued to force LEC church Christians to sign renunciations of their faith under threat of arrest, denial of educational opportunity for their children, and restrictions on access to government services. Church officials reported that some detainees held for their religious beliefs were released only after they agreed to renounce their faith. Some civil servants were threatened with loss of their positions if they did not sign the renunciations. These attempts appear to have ceased by late 2001, and no reports of forced renunciations surfaced after December 2001. However, Hmong Christian communities in Vang Vieng district of Vientiane province did experience "strong pressure" from local authorities to renounce their religious faith. Nevertheless, the forced renunciation campaign of the past several years has led to the decimation of LEC church membership in some areas, and many churches in areas affected by the campaign have lost most of their congregations. Church leaders believe that many, if not most, of those who have renounced their faith did so as an expedient only, and will rejoin their former churches when conditions improve.
The overwhelming preponderance of arrests have been of religious leaders and the most active and visible proselytizers, not of practitioners. Despite the end of the formal renunciation campaign, local officials also continued to threaten with arrest congregations and believers. Although officials generally took no action, such threats have had a chilling effect on religious practice.
In November 2001, an unknown assailant shot and killed prominent LEC church pastor Thongla near his home in Sayaboury province and injured his daughter. In March 2002, authorities in Sayaboury province announced that they had arrested Thongla's uncle as a suspect for the killing; however, the suspect subsequently was released for lack of evidence. By the end of the period covered by this report, the killing remained unsolved. Although police in Sayaboury claimed the killing likely was the result of a family dispute, many members of the religious community doubted this explanation and suspected that the killing was because of the pastor's religious activities.
Forced Religious Conversion
The enhanced status given to Buddhism in Luang Prabang--famed for its centuries-old Buddhist tradition and numerous temples--apparently led some local officials there to act more harshly toward minority religions, particularly toward Christian and Baha'i groups, than in other areas of the country.
Forced renunciations of faith continued in a number of provinces during the period covered by the report, although there were no new reports of such renunciations after December 2001. In Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang provinces, local officials instructed Christians, especially those belonging to the Khmu ethnic minority, to renounce their Christian faith. There were no reports during the period covered by this report of forced renunciations involving profane rituals such as drinking of animal blood, as there had been in the previous reporting period.
There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
The Government's record of respect for religious freedom, particularly towards its Christian minorities, improved modestly during the period covered by this report. Incidents of arrests of religious leaders declined, and there were no reports of forced renunciations of faith after December 2001. In addition authorities allowed several churches that had been ordered closed in Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang provinces to reopen.
In general the Government appeared to have taken a more conciliatory approach to its religious minorities, and towards the LEC church in particular, and to adopt a policy of greater tolerance toward Christian groups. The LFNC took the lead in this effort; officials from the LFNC traveled to provinces that had experienced abuse of Christians in order to instruct local officials on the need to tolerate the activities of Christian congregations. The Vice President of the LFNC who oversees the religious issue personally visited several provinces as part of this effort. In addition the President of the LFNC spoke publicly on the need for tolerance toward Christians.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
The various religious communities coexist amicably; society places importance on harmonious relations, and the dominant Buddhist faith generally is tolerant of other religious practices. Although there is no ecumenical movement, and there are no efforts to create greater mutual understanding, cultural mores generally instill respect for longstanding, well-known differences in belief.
However, interreligious tensions arose on rare occasions within some minority ethnic groups, particularly in response to proselytizing or to disagreements over rights to village resources. Tensions also have arisen over the refusal of some members of minority religious groups to participate in Buddhist or animist religious ceremonies.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The arrival of a new Ambassador in September 2001 allowed the U.S. Embassy to address the issue of religious freedom with government leaders at the most senior levels. The Ambassador spoke directly about the state of religious freedom in the country with the President, Party Secretary, Prime Minister, Vice President, both Deputy Prime Ministers, and the President of the LFNC, as well as with most Ministers. Other Embassy officers raised the issue of religious freedom at the working level with a range of central and provincial officials. The Embassy maintained an ongoing dialog with the Department of Religious Affairs in the LFNC, and as part of this dialog, the Embassy informed the LFNC of specific cases of arrest or harassment, and used this information to intercede with local officials.
Embassy representatives met with all of the major religious leaders in the country during the period covered by this report. Embassy officials actively have encouraged religious freedom despite an environment that is restricted by the government owned and government controlled media.
The Embassy supported and encouraged the January 2002 visit of the President of the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), a U.S.-based NGO devoted to promoting religious freedom, to survey the status of religious freedom. During this visit, the IGE President traveled to the LEC church communities in northern Vientiane province, and the visit resulted in the reopening of several churches in the area that local authorities had closed. Following this visit, at the invitation of the IGE, a delegation from the LFNC traveled to the United States to discuss religious freedom with U.S. government officials, members of Congress, and others interested in the issue.