By BosNewsLife Asia Service
VIENTIANE, LAOS (BosNewsLife)-- Dozens of Christians in southern Laos have been told to leave their village within 24 hours if they continue to believe in Christ and hold worship services, an advocacy group defending the Christians said Wednesday, December 21.
With Christmas approaching, Lao authorities already plan to expel at least 47 Christians, "including men, women and children," from Natoo village in the Palansai District of Savannakhet province, explained Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).
The group said four Christian family leaders "were summoned" Wednesday, December 21, to appear in front of the village chief and local religious affairs officials as well as security forces where they were allegedly ordered to "cease all beliefs and practices in the Christian faith."
HRWLRF, which apparently obtained remarks from the meeting, quoted officials also as saying: “If you continue holding on to your faith, then you are forfeiting your right to live in our village and you must move out by tomorrow.”
When Christian believers asked who was behind the eviction order, village authorities reportedly replied: "We are the ones giving the order because we are the owners of this village." It was difficult to immediately independently verify the claims, but HRWLRF has correctly reported previous incidents involving Christians in the Communist-run Asian nation.
The reported eviction order came just days after elsewhere in Savannakhet province security forces reportedly detained eight church leaders for organizing a Christmas worship service in Boukham Village in Ad-Sapangthong District.
HRWLRF said security forces "under the order of the village chief" and arrested the leaders during a December 16 "Christmas gathering" in the village.
"The village authorities escorted the Christian leaders out from the gathering two at a time. The leaders were then taken to the village government headquarters and detained there."
Four of the eight leaders, identified only as Kingmanosorn, Sompong, Puphet, and Oun—were, were allegedly placed in handcuffs and wooden stocks, a common form of police torture in the country.
"The rest of the leaders were unrestrained," HRWLRF said. Family members have reportedly been allowed to deliver blankets and food to the prisoners.
The Lao Evangelical Church (LEC), the only Protestant group recognized by the government, reportedly managed to negotiate the release of one of the detainees held in stocks. The man, identified as Kingnamosorn, was released after paying a fine of 1 million kip, about $123, to the village chief, rights activists said.
The average monthly wage for an unskilled laborer in the province is close to $40, Christians explained. It was not immediately clear Wednesday, December 21, for how long the other Christians would be held.
Christians say it is normal for Lao Christians to hold Christmas celebrations before or after December 25 to avoid drawing the attention of authorities.
Laos ranks 10 on the 2011 World Watch List of the 50 "worst" nations for Christians, said advocacy group Open Doors, which publishes the annual list. "The government's attitude towards Christians is very negative. The church cannot operate freely and Christians are restricted in their roles in their families and communities," said the group.
"Many believers experience extreme physical and emotional pressure to renounce their faith."
Last year, in 2010, 29 Christians were killed and at least 20 were arrested and held without trial, according to Open Doors estimates. Several churches were destroyed and at least 11 Christian families were forced out of their villages into the forest when they refused to recant their faith, the group added.
Yet, despite the reported persecution, churches are reportedly growing. There are as many as 200,000 devoted Christians in Laos, where most of the 6.4 million people are Buddhists, according to Christian rights investigators.
Lao authorites have not publicly commented on the latest developments, however analysts say Christianity is generally perceived as a Western ideology that challenges Communism. "Restrictions on believers are not expected to ease in the coming years," Open Doors said. (With reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos)