The Government's poor record of respect for religious freedom continued to improve moderately in some parts of the country but deteriorated in other regions. 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 was instrumental in drafting regulations, released as a prime ministerial decree (Decree 92) in July 2002, aimed at clarifying the rights and responsibilities of religious practitioners and ending ambiguity that had led to abuses of religious freedom. The decree was a factor in the improved climate of religious tolerance that some provinces experienced. However, Decree 92 also places restrictions on religious practice and retains the LFNC's control of many religious activities. During the period covered by this report, there were scattered reports of local officials pressuring minority Christians to renounce their faith, and at least one instance of Christian villagers forced from their homes because of their religious beliefs. There were a number of instances of persons arrested for their religious practice, particularly in Savannakhet Province.
No churches were closed during the reporting period, but local officials in Savannakhet Province dismantled one church and seized property belonging to a local Christian congregation. At the end of the period covered by this report, there were 13 known religious prisoners, all Protestants, and an additional 11 Protestants under arrest on other charges, but apparently singled out at least in part for their religious affiliation. Of these 24 prisoners, 21 were from the same ethnic Brou community. They were under loose detention in Savannakhet Province.
There were generally amicable relations among the various religious groups; 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 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 5.9 million. Almost all ethnic or "lowland" Lao are followers of Theravada Buddhism; however, lowland Lao probably constitute no more than 40 percent of the country's population. Most non-Lao, members of at least 47 distinct ethnic groups, are practitioners of animism, with beliefs that vary greatly between groups. Animists are also found among Lao Theung (mid-slope dwelling) and Lao Soung (highland) minority tribes. Among lowland Lao, particularly in the countryside, there is both a certain syncretistic practice of, and tolerance for, animist customs. Catholics and Protestants constitute approximately two 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.
Theravada Buddhism is by far the most prominent organized religion in the country, with nearly 5,000 temples serving as the focus of religious practice and faith, as well as the center of community life in rural areas. In most lowland Lao villages, religious tradition remains strong in spite of economic and social development; most Buddhist men will still spend some part of their life as a monk in a temple, even if only for a few days. There are approximately 22,000 monks in the country, nearly 9,000 of whom have attained the rank of "senior monk," indicating years of study in a temple. In addition, there are approximately 450 nuns, generally older women who are widowed, resident in temples throughout the country. The Buddhist church is under the direction of a Supreme Patriarch, who resides in Vientiane and supervises the activities of the church's central office, the Ho Thammasapha.
Although officially incorporated into the dominant Mahanikai school of Buddhist practice after 1975, the Thammayudh sect of Buddhism still maintains a following in the country. Abbots and monks of several temples, particularly in Vientiane, reportedly are followers of the Thammayudh school, with its greater emphasis on meditation and discipline.
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 worshippers. There are at least four large Mahayana Buddhist pagodas in other urban centers and smaller Mahayana pagodas in villages near the borders of Vietnam and China. Buddhist nuns reportedly serve some of these pagodas.
The Roman Catholic Church has 30,000 to 40,000 adherents, many of whom are ethnic Vietnamese, concentrated in major urban centers along the Mekong River. 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 is moribund. There are three bishops, located in Vientiane, Thakhek, and Pakse, who were able to visit Rome to confer with church officials. A fourth bishop, for the northern part of the country, has been unable to take up his post in Luang Prabang. The church's property there was seized after 1975 and there is no longer a parsonage in that city; the bishop remains in residence in Vientiane. A Catholic seminary 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. Most Protestants belong to the LEC. Many Protestants are members of ethnic Mon-Khmer groups; the Protestants also have expanded rapidly in the Hmong and Yao communities. In the urban areas the Protestant church has attracted many lowland Lao followers. Most LEC members are 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 less than 1,000 followers in Vientiane and in Bokeo Province. 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 maintains properties in Savannakhet and Pakse.
Several LEC properties in Savannakhet and Pakse were seized by the Government after 1975, but were returned to the church in the early 1990s. Two informal churches, one English-speaking and one Korean-speaking, serve Vientiane's foreign Protestant community.
Within the LEC, some congregations seek greater independence and have forged their own connections with Protestant groups abroad. As the LEC has grown, an increased diversity of views has emerged among adherents and pastors, and one or two groups have quietly sought to register with the LFNC as separate denominations. Although in theory the Prime Minister's Decree on Religious Practice provides a mechanism for new religious denominations to register, in practice the Government's desire to consolidate religious practice for purposes of control and observation makes it unlikely that authorities will approve these registration requests. Decree 92 provides no details regarding how new denominations should go about registering, other than to say they must submit a "comprehensive" set of documents to the LFNC. Several denominations that so far have requested registration have done so through petitions to the LFNC's Religious Affairs Department, citing their growing body of followers and doctrinal differences with the established Protestant churches. In theory, denominations that are not registered with the LFNC are not allowed to practice their faith, and denominations that have sought registration have expressed their concerns about being forced to cease their activities should their registration requests be denied. However, so far authorities have made no attempt to interfere in the activities of these "independent" churches.
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 Savannakhet. Small groups of followers of Confucianism and Taoism practice their beliefs in the larger cities.
Although the Government prohibits foreigners from proselytizing, some resident foreigners associated with private businesses or NGOs quietly engage in missionary activity.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the authorities, particularly at the local level, sometimes violate 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 interpret this constitutional provision restrictively 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 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. Persons 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 and criminal and civil law on the rights and obligations of religious faiths, in July 2002 the Prime Minister's Office issued Prime Minister's Decree 92 on the Administration and Protection of Religious Practice. In 20 articles, Decree 92 establishes guidelines for religious activities in a broad range of areas. While the decree provides that the Government "respects and protects legitimate activities of believers," it also seeks to ensure that religious practice "conforms to the laws and regulations." Decree 92 reserves for the LFNC the "right and duty to manage and promote" religious practice, requiring that nearly all aspects of religious practice receive the approval of the LFNC office at the level where the activity occurs.
Although the rules legitimize many activities that were previously regarded as illegal, such as proselytizing, printing of religious material and maintaining contact with overseas religious groups, the qualification that all such activities must receive LFNC approval effectively gives the Government a tool for imposing restrictions on religious practice.
Both the Constitution and Decree 92 take the view that religious practice should serve national interests, promoting development and education and instructing believers to be good citizens. The Government presumes its right and duty to oversee religious practice at all levels to ensure it fills this role in society. In practice, this has led the Government to intervene frequently in the activities of minority religious groups, particularly Christians, whose practices the authorities felt did not promote national interests or whose activities authorities saw as demonstrating disloyalty to the Government or to the Communist Party.
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 the majority of the ethnic Lao population. The Government's observation, control of clergy, training support, and oversight of temples and other facilities constitute a form of favoritism that in effect gives Theravada Buddhism the status of an unofficial national religion. Many persons regard Buddhism as both an integral part of the national culture and as a way of life. The increasing incorporation of Buddhist ritual and ceremony in State functions reflects the elevated status of Buddhism in society. For example, during its dedication of a monument to a past king in early 2003, the Government enlisted the full support of the Buddhist clergy to consecrate the monument, transforming the dedication of a statue of a secular king into a semi-religious event.
Animists generally experienced no government interference 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 killing infants born with defects or of keeping the bodies of deceased relatives in homes.
Although the Government does not recognize the Holy See, the Papal Nuncio visits from Thailand and coordinates with the Government on assistance programs, especially for lepers and persons with disabilities.
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, confined to a handful of congregations in Vientiane and in Bokeo Province, 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. Christian denominations, particularly the LEC, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Catholic Church, operate Sunday Schools for children and young persons.
The Government has only one semireligious 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 Protestants continuing to be the target of most restrictions. Although not subjected to harassment, the Buddhist hierarchy receives close oversight from the Government. In general, 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. The LFNC at times did use its offices to mitigate the arbitrary behavior of local officials in some areas where harassment of Christian religious minorities had been most severe. However, in 2003 the LFNC's Religious Affairs Department adopted a policy of becoming involved in local religious controversies only in extreme cases, urging localities to resolve their own problems, using Decree 92 as guide. As a result, the application of Decree 92 was inconsistent, and some areas of the country continued to see improvements in religious tolerance, while other areas saw reverses. In general, larger urban areas, such as Vientiane, Thakhek, Pakse, and Savannakhet Cities, experienced little or no overt religious abuse and reported an improved atmosphere of religious tolerance. Moreover, the large Protestant and Catholic communities of several provinces, including Xieng Khouang, Khammouane, and Champassak, reported no difficulties with authorities. Relations between officials and Christians in these areas were generally amicable. However, even in these areas, religious practice was restrained by official rules and policies that allowed properly registered religious groups to practice their faith only under circumscribed conditions.
Between 1999 and 2001, local authorities closed approximately 20 of Vientiane province's 60 LEC churches, primarily those in Hin Hoep, Feuang, and Vang Vieng districts, and approximately 65 LEC churches in Savannakhet and Luang Prabang provinces. Many of these churches were allowed to reopen in 2002, especially in Vientiane and Luang Prabang provinces; however, the majority of churches in Savannakhet remained closed at the end of the period covered by this report.
An LEC church in Ban Nong Ing, Champhon District of Savannakhet Province, was torn down by local officials in early 2003, its wood used to construct a bicycle parking shed for a nearby school. Also in early 2003, officials in Kengkok Village of Champhon District expelled several LEC families living in a parsonage house on property belonging to the LEC community and forcibly took over the house for use as a village office. In late June, officials in Kengkok agreed in principle to return to the LEC community the LEC church that had been seized by the village in 1999. However, the church had not been returned by the end of the period covered by this report.
As many as 200 of the LEC's nearly 300 congregations, lacking permanent church edifices, conduct worship services in members' homes. Since the promulgation of Decree 92, the LFNC has adopted the view that home services are "improper," and that local congregations should worship in dedicated church buildings. In spite of this policy, village and district-level LFNC offices have not been forthcoming in authorizing the construction of new churches in many cases. However, authorities in most areas have continued to tolerate home churches. The LEC encountered difficulties registering new congregations and receiving permission to establish new places of worship or to repair existing facilities, including facilities in Vientiane. No other minority religious groups encountered such difficulties. In addition, authorities required 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 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, many of which openly conduct services with the knowledge of local authorities.
The authorities remained 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 Government or LPRP, appear to have singled out the LEC 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. The LEC's 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 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 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. Authorities in remote areas of Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet Provinces, and Saisomboune Special Zone required some LEC congregations to travel to other villages for Christmas celebrations during the period covered by this report, and in Champhon and Saybouli Districts of Savannakhet some LEC members attempting to celebrate Christmas were detained by police. 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. During the reporting period, authorities in the Champhon and Saybouli Districts interfered with LEC congregations' religious practice by forcing church members to attend political training on Sundays. There were no reports of official interference in or denial of permission to hold religious celebrations of other religious groups. There were no reports of security forces stopping 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. Because the Catholic Church's property in Luang Prabang was seized after the creation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in 1975, the Church owns no parsonage in that city and the Bishop of Luang Prabang has remained in residence in Vientiane. Authorities continued to restrict the bishop's travel to his diocese. There are no ordained Catholic priests operating in the north. Several church properties, including a school in Vientiane, were seized by the Government after 1975 and have not been returned, nor has the Government provided restitution. 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 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, and Decree 92 specifically authorizes proselytizing, providing the LFNC approves the activity. In spite of this provision, most authorities continue to interpret proselytizing as an illegal activity. Nevertheless, religious followers proselytize, resulting in conversions. Although Decree 92 authorizes the printing of non-Buddhist religious texts and allows religious material to be imported from abroad, it also requires permission for such activities from the LFNC. In practice, the LFNC has not authorized Christian denominations to print their own religious material, including Bibles. Some religious material is brought into the country surreptitiously by believers. On occasion authorities have seized religious material imported 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 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 usually grants exit visas as a matter of routine. There is no evidence that the Government investigated travelers on their return. However, officials in Champhon District of Savannakhet Province arrested a local LEC member in March on charges the man had traveled to Thailand "without permission." Those charges, although false in that case, indicate that officials in some areas still attempt to restrict citizens' travel abroad for religious purposes.
Until recently, government-issued identity cards reported the religious affiliations of all adult citizens. Newly issued cards do not specify religion, nor is religious denomination specified in family "household registers" or in passports, two other important forms of identification. Officials in Sam Neua City of Houaphanh Province reportedly refused to issue ID cards to some LEC families in Houaphanh Province because of their religion.
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. 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 2002 were released at the beginning of the reporting period in Savannakhet, Vientiane, and Luang Namtha Provinces. Three persons arrested and sentenced in Luang Prabang in 1999 for conducting unauthorized religious services were released in July 2002 after completing their sentences. The greatest number of detainees at one time, including those sentenced and those arrested and detained without sentence, was approximately 35 in January, resulting from the mass detention of Christmas worshippers in Savannakhet Province. At the end of the period covered by this report, there were 24 known religious prisoners and detainees, all Christians; 21 of those detainees were reportedly held under loose detention in Savannakhet's Muang Nong District. Conditions in prisons are extremely harsh, and, like other prisoners, 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. In December 2002, nearly 30 LEC members attending worship services in Savannakhet Province's Champhon and Saybouli Districts were arrested for unauthorized assembly and held for more than a week. In early 2003, several pastors and laypersons were arrested in Vientiane Province for their religious activities. Two persons in Champhon District were arrested in March for their religious faith, although authorities cited "cattle stealing" and "traveling abroad without authorization" as the grounds for the arrests. Four LEC Christians in Luang Prabang Province's Nam Bac District were arrested in April for their religious activities, and authorities in Savannakhet's Muang Nong District detained 21 ethnic Brou Christians in May. Of these, nine were accused of violations of Decree 92; according to Lao authorities, they traveled to another village for a religious ceremony without first obtaining permission. The same authorities report that the remainder were accused of possession of illegal weapons, although other sources maintain that all were detained due to their religious activities. In most of these cases, the detained parties were released following several weeks' detention, usually at district police offices rather than at provincial-level jails, but the group of 21 detainees in Muang Nong remained under loose detention at the end of the reporting period. 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; and Angot, Kanthi, Haban, Dek, Ana, Jan, Ateuy, Apet, Ason, Aneuy, Aje, Saleng, Ajon, Asam, Anyang, Akom, Atuan, Ayet, Akeh, Aleuy, and Yan in Savannakhet Province.
Two persons, Nyoht and Thongchanh in Oudomxai Province, were tried and convicted. They remained in detention at the end of the period covered by this report.
In April, authorities in Houaphanh Province released from detention a former military officer, Khamtanh Phousy, 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.
There were no reports that authorities detained or deported foreigners for religious reasons.
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. In most provinces, the preponderance of arrests have been of religious leaders and the most active and visible proselytizers, not of practitioners. However, in Savannakhet Province, practitioners were arrested along with religious leaders in several mass arrests in Saybouli, Champhon and Muang Nong Districts. 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 had a chilling effect on religious practice.
In 2001 an unknown assailant shot and killed prominent LEC Pastor Thongla near his home in Sayaboury Province and injured his daughter. As of the end of the period covered by this report, the killing remained unsolved. In early 2003, unknown assailants fired shots into the home of a prominent LEC pastor in Attapeu province on three consecutive nights, forcing the pastor and his family to flee to a neighboring province temporarily for safety. As of the end of the reporting period, police had made no arrests in that case.
Forced Religious Conversion
Between 1998 and 2001, reports of authorities forcing members of LEC congregations to renounce their religious faith on pain of arrest, denial of educational opportunity for their children, expulsion from their village, or other harsh punishment were commonplace. The similarity of renunciation forms from province to province indicated a concerted effort on the part of the Government or of the Communist Party to decimate the LEC through renunciations. In some areas, whole congregations gave up their faith under this campaign. However, reports of these forced renunciations largely ended by late 2001, and it appears the Government has abandoned systematic efforts to compel Christians to renounce their faith. Church leaders believe that many, if not most, of those who renounced their faith did so as an expedient only, and will rejoin their former churches when conditions improve.
Nevertheless, during the period covered by this report, several instances of forced renunciations by local authorities surfaced, particularly in Savannakhet, Attapeu, Bolikhamsai, and Luang Prabang provinces. In March, in Nong District of Savannakhet Province, three ethnic Brou families, comprised of 16 persons, were expelled from their village for failing to renounce their religious faith. Late in 2002, several ethnic Hmong families in Bolikhamsai's Ban Kata Village were threatened with expulsion from their homes for refusing to renounce their faith; these families reportedly left the village but later were allowed to return. LEC Christians in Attapeu and Houaphanh Provinces and in Kok Ngieu village in Luang Prabang Province also were threatened with expulsion, but officials did not act on these threats when the Christians refused to comply. In the case of threatened expulsions of five Christian families in Attapeu Province, the LFNC's Department of Religious Affairs intervened directly with local officials to ensure the expulsion order was rescinded. In addition, three LEC communities in Saisomboun Special Zone were ordered to abandon their faith by the end of the year or face unspecified punishment.
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, was inconsistent during the period covered by this report; most provinces with significant Christian communities showed modest improvements but in some, particularly Savannakhet and Attapeu, abuse of native Christians actually increased relative to the previous reporting period. In most provinces, incidents of arrests of religious leaders declined, there were no reports of new church closings, and other acts of abuse of Christian minorities, such as village expulsions, were limited to a small number of areas. In addition, several long-closed churches, especially in Vientiane Province, were allowed to reopen.
In general, the Government appeared sincere in its efforts to promote conciliation between religious faiths and displayed greater tolerance for the LEC. The LFNC continued to play a lead role in promoting greater tolerance of the LEC's activities, but with the publication of Decree 92 in July 2002, the LFNC decreased its attempts to intervene directly with localities in most cases where it became aware of local-level abuse. Nevertheless, the LFNC continued its efforts to instruct local officials on religious tolerance. Officials from the LFNC made frequent trips to provinces that had experienced abuse of Christians in order to instruct local officials on the need to tolerate the activities of Christian congregations. On several occasions, the President of the LFNC, a senior member of the country's ruling Politburo, traveled to the provinces to personally instruct local and provincial officials on the need for greater tolerance of minority religious practice. The LEC also contributed to the improved climate through an aggressive program of public service, providing developmental assistance and organizing social welfare projects in several areas that had previously experienced abuse.
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 U.S. Ambassador addressed 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 all the senior leaders, and routinely raised the issue with provincial officials during his frequent provincial visits. The Ambassador has visited several problem areas, including Champhon District of Savannakhet Province, to observe the situation first-hand. Other Embassy officers discussed 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, who 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 February 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 communities in Savannakhet Province and witnessed local authorities' efforts to conceal the existence of a Christian community in Keng Kok village. The Embassy also hosted the visit of a member of the U.S. Congress and a delegation from the Jubilee Campaign to observe conditions of religious tolerance in the country. The Embassy actively encourages such high-level visits as the most effective tool available for eliciting greater respect for religious freedom from the Government.