By BosNewsLife Asia Service with BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
VIENTIANE, LAOS (BosNewsLife)-- Seven Christian leaders who were detained and tortured for nearly a month in southern Laos have been released, but concerns remain about "the confiscation" of church buildings, an official assisting them told BosNewsLife Friday, January 13.
"Almost one month after their arrest and detention in Boukham village [in the] Ad-Sapathong district [of] Savannakhet province, the seven Christian leaders were released unconditionally", said Sirikoon Prasertsee, director of the Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).
He told BosNewsLife that the release was "unconditionally" amid "prayers and advocacy efforts."
Prasertsee, who has close knowledge about the situation, said earlier that the village authorities claimed that the detained Christians "violated the village’s 'hiit'," the local traditional customs and spirit beliefs, because of their Christian faith practices.
He said they were being restrained in wooden stocks, commonly used in Lao prisons and detention centers, sometimes combined with exposure to red fire ants, as a form of torture.
The official explained that authorities used this method to pressure them to admit to the charges and to pay fines of several times the average monthly wage of rougly $40.
Pastors Sompong and Ma of the Boukham church were fined some $250 in local currency, and forced to handover one cow, a value of $200, the HRWLRF said.
Pastors Wanta and Oun of the nearby Liansai church, were reportedly fined $125 and one cow. The same sentences were given to Pastors Kaithong and Kai of the Saisomboon church and Pastor Puphet of the Donpalai church, rights investigators said. In Laos people often use only one name.
There were no indications that the fines were paid. However Prasertsee told BosNewsLife that the Lao district and village authorities' "torturing" tactics have been "severely affecting the health" of at least three church leaders in Boukham village.
While pleased they were released, Prasertsee said his group remains concerned about "the confiscation of church buildings" elsewhere in the troubled Savannakhet province.
The HRWLRF said in a statement to BosNewsLife that in one of the latest known incidents, provincial authorities in Nadaeng village of the province's Saybuli District "unlawfully" seized the building of a more than 50-year-old church there.
"Lao officials ordered the confiscation of the Nadaeng Church building and placed it under the control of the Nadaeng village government".
The HRWLRF added that since January 7 "no Christians have been allowed to enter the church building to conduct any religious activity."
Rights investigators linked the decision to a "successful Christmas gathering" which was held in the church by Christians ignoring a government order not to hold such meetings.
Last month, security and other officials reportedly told villagers "to be careful of deceptive tactics of the enemy [such as] imperialistic Americans who use Christian religion to oppose the present Lao political system."
The closure of the church came as a major setback for the Nadaeng Church which held services in its current building since 1959.
Rights investigators said another church was also confiscated and that they fear more raids in the near future. "Now that two of them, the Nadaeng Church building and the Dongpaiwan Church building have been confiscated" a further 23 church buildings "are at risk", the HRWLRF explained. Only 7 of the 30 known churches in the province have been recognized, the rights group said.
Analysts say Christianity in Laos is generally perceived as a Western ideology that challenges Communism.
There about 200,000 devoted Christians in the Communist-run Asian nation, where most of the 6.4 million people are Buddhists, according to Christian estimates.
Lao authorities were difficult to reach for comment, but officials have in the past denied human rights abuses against minorities.
Laos is viewed as one of the world's few remaining Communist states and one of east Asia's poorest nations.