There were reports of attempted forced renunciations, imprisonment, detention, and assaults in detention. While in practice the central government respected both “belief-related” and “manifestation-related” rights, the government structure was relatively decentralized, and central government control over provincial and district governments remained limited. As a result, the government’s respect for religious freedom varied by region and by religious group. Some local officials were unaware of central government policies on topics such as religious tolerance due to the limited dissemination and application of existing laws and regulations. Even when they were aware of the laws, local officials sometimes failed to implement them. Authorities occasionally arrested and detained people for their religious activities. In some cases local officials threatened Protestants with arrest or expulsion from their villages if they did not comply with certain orders.
In September local police in Huay and Nonsung Villages, Atsaphangthong District, Savannakhet Province, reportedly pressured Protestants to renounce their faith, but the Protestants refused and the police took no further action.
In July in Sing, Long, and Viengphouka districts in Luang Namtha province, local officials prohibited Christians from building churches or congregating to worship. Officials also arrested one villager in Long district and did not release him until he renounced his faith.
Following the detention of pastors in 2012, on February 5, Phin District authorities arrested two additional pastors, Bounmy and Bounma, for copying Christian DVDs and disseminating Christian media. The pastors were detained for not conducting religious activities according to regulation, and police reportedly beat them. Local officials released the pastors on March 8.
Persons arrested for alleged religion-related offenses, as with all criminal offenses, had little protection under the law. Detainees could be held for lengthy periods without trial and then released. There were no reports that any cases involving religion-related charges reached the courts. All religious groups, including Buddhists, practiced their faith in an atmosphere in which application of the law was arbitrary. Actions interpreted by officials as threatening brought harsh punishment. Religious practice was “free” only within tacitly understood guidelines.
The government restricted the religious activities of certain groups and effectively limited or prevented some religious groups from importing Bibles and religious materials, as well as constructing houses of worship. Non-Buddhist religious group leaders complained that the requirement to obtain permission for a broad range of activities, sometimes from several different offices, limited their freedom.
Although groups not registered with the LFNC were not allowed to practice their faith legally, several did so quietly without interference. Protestant groups seeking recognition as separate from the LEC continued to be the targets of restrictions, and authorities in several provinces insisted that independent congregations must join the LEC. In some areas, however, unauthorized churches were allowed to conduct services without hindrance by local authorities. Methodists continued to seek registration with the LFNC as a separate denomination. The LFNC in turn requested the Methodists to join the LEC umbrella.
The government required religious groups to report membership information periodically to the Religious Affairs Department of the LFNC.
Muslims were able to practice openly at the two active mosques. Muslim Association leaders met regularly with LFNC officials and maintained an effective working relationship with the government. Daily prayers and the weekly Friday prayer proceeded unobstructed, and all Islamic celebrations were allowed. Muslims were permitted to go on the Hajj. The government permitted groups from Thailand to conduct Tabligh teachings.
While animists generally experienced little governmental interference, the government actively discouraged animist practices it deemed outdated, dangerous, or illegal, such as the practice in some tribes of killing children born with defects or burying the bodies of deceased relatives beneath homes.
The government typically refused to acknowledge any religious freedom abuses by its officials. Government authorities often blamed the victims rather than the persecuting officials. Even when the government admitted that local officials were partly at fault, it was unwilling to take action against officials who violated laws and regulations on religious freedom.
The government promoted the teaching of Buddhist practices as part of Lao culture in public schools. Cultural sessions included lessons taught in Buddhist temples. Several private preschools and English language schools received support from religious groups abroad. Many boys received instruction in religion and other subjects in Buddhist temples, which traditionally filled the role of schools and continued to play this role in smaller communities where formal education was limited or unavailable. Additionally, two Buddhist colleges and two Buddhist secondary schools provided religious training for children and adults. Christian denominations, particularly the LEC and Seventh-day Adventists, operated Sunday schools for children and youth. Bahai groups conducted religious training for children and adult members. The Catholic Church operated a seminary in Thakhek for students with high school degrees to study philosophy and theology for two to ten years. The Muslim community offered limited educational training for its children. On occasion local officials threatened to deny educational benefits to the children of Protestants because of their religious beliefs.
The LFNC and MHA occasionally visited areas where religious persecution had taken place to instruct local officials on government policy and law. More often, however, the LFNC’s Religious Affairs Department encouraged local or provincial governments to resolve conflicts on their own in accordance with the prime ministerial decree. The LFNC sometimes negotiated with local officials when worshipers were detained for religious reasons.
As many as 200 of the LEC’s more than 480 congregations throughout the country did not have permanent church structures and conducted worship services in homes. The LFNC’s Religious Affairs Department continued to urge that home churches be replaced with designated church structures whenever possible, and local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal. Nevertheless, Protestant groups could not obtain permission to build new churches. Religious group representatives pointed out that the building permit process began at the local level and then required district, provincial, and ultimately central level LFNC and MHA permission. They alleged that local officials used the process, requiring multiple layers of permission, to block construction of new churches. As a result, no new LEC churches attempted to register officially during the year. In a few cases, villages allowed construction of new church buildings without prior official permission from higher-level authorities.
There were reports that Protestants in some villages were not allowed to hold Christian celebrations in their homes, thus restricting Protestant activities to church buildings only. This restriction particularly affected Protestants who had not been given approval to build church structures in their villages.
Officials in Xayaburi District, Savannakhet Province, continued to prohibit worshipers from accessing previously confiscated Christian churches in Dongpaiwan Village, Nadaeng, Kengweng, and Khamnonsung, citing the lack of official registration. No additional churches were confiscated.
Provincial, district, and local officials, as well as LFNC representatives, participated in town hall meetings with local Protestant leaders and community leaders to discuss the issues involved in the confiscations and seek resolution of the conflict in the Xayaburi District villages. Local Protestant leaders expressed frustration over the arduous registration process that led to the conflict, while local community leaders expressed their desire to use the buildings as a school for all children in the community, regardless of their faith. Authorities did not allow Christian groups to hold holiday services in the churches, and the groups had not received official registration for their church facilities by year’s end.
Bahai communities in Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang generally practiced without interference, and Bahai groups faced few restrictions from local authorities. Local Bahai communities and the Bahai National Spiritual Assembly routinely held Bahai Nineteen-Day Feasts and celebrated all holy days without interference. The Bahai National Spiritual Assembly in Vientiane met regularly and sent delegations to the Universal House of Justice in Israel. In October the Bahais organized a 200-person annual meeting in Vientiane, with attendees from throughout the country. The LFNC approved the meeting.
In Savannakhet, Pakse, and Champasak provinces, Catholics complained the government restricted Catholics from entering government jobs and being promoted.
The government strictly enforced the legal prohibition on proselytizing by foreigners, although it permitted foreign NGOs with religious affiliations to work in the country. The LFNC granted permission for some religious leaders to organize educational meetings, but did not grant broad permission to proselytize without restriction.
The government permitted the printing, import, and distribution of Buddhist religious material, but restricted the publication of religious materials by most other religious groups. The printing and importation of non-Buddhist religious texts from abroad required LFNC permission. While some groups were able to print their own religious materials, the government did not allow the printing of Bibles, and special permission was required for their importation for distribution in limited quantities. On November 8, the LEC received permission from both the LFNC and MHA to import 4,000 Lao-language bibles.
LFNC and MHA officials increased their travel to the provinces to encourage religious groups to practice in accordance with the country’s laws and regulations. They also provided training to local officials in Bokeo, Oudomxay, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Vientiane capital. During these sessions officials learned about religious law and received education seminars about the basic tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, the Bahai Faith, and Islam from religious leaders.
Government officials attended some Buddhist religious festivals and Christmas celebrations in their official capacity.