(ADDS MORE COMMENTS FROM HUMAN RIGHTS OFFICIAL)
By BosNewsLife Asia Service
VIENTIANE, LAOS (BosNewsLife)-- Christians in a village in southern Laos were without a place of worship Thursday, February 23, after authorities "confiscated" their 37-year-old church building as part of a wider crackdown on local congregations in the region, representatives told BosNewsLife.
The Kengweng village church in the country's religiously volatile Savannakhet province was taken over by a group of district officials Wednesday, February 22, said the well-informed Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF), which has close contacts with local believers.
"We have just released our advocacy alert," added HRWLRF Director Sirikoon Prasertsee. "I spoke with the Christians of Kengweng village themselves," he told BosNewsLife.
The church building confiscation reportedly followed a two-day government seminar entitled "Tricks of the Enemy" which villagers were asked to join.
It was not immediately clear who the "Enemy" was, but Christianity is often viewed with contempt by officials in this heavily Buddhist, but Communist ruled, Asian nation, explained Prasertsee. "Christianity is perceived as a trick of Western (American) imperialism."
Officials involved in the raid were identified as Saysamorn, a Saybuli district Communist Party committee member, Bountha, a Saybuli district religious affairs official and Captain Saysana, the Saybuli district deputy chief of police.
In Laos people often use only one name. There was no immediate independent confirmation from authorities, but BosNewsLife earlier learned of several church raids in the region.
During Wednesday's incident, "the officials further instructed that if Christians wanted to use the church building, they must submit a formal written request to village-level, district-level, and provincial officials and be approved by each of the three levels," the HRWLRF said in a statement.
The church in Kengweng village began in 1972 with two Christian Lao families and apparently grew in recent years to 25 Christian families, consisting of 178 individual believers.
It was the third "confiscated" church buildings in recent weeks, after the properties of the regional Nadaeng and Dongpaiwan churches were seized, according to rights investigators.
"The remaining twenty-two church buildings are at risk of also being confiscated by Lao authorities at any time," warned HRWLRF.
"What is happening in Kengweng village is part of a wider effort to restrict religious freedom and a wider crackdown on Christian gathering for worship," HRWLRF's Prasertsee told BosNewsLife.
"Not only are the authorities took over church property, they are also restricting worship gathering, even in homes. Christians who have gathered together to conduct worship for almost 40 years now have to obtain approval for each of these such regular Sunday morning gathering."
His group said in an assessment that "Although religious freedom and religious assembly to practice one’s religion are guaranteed by the Lao constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as ratified by the Lao government", authorities "have refused to recognize the existence of Christians and churches in Savannakhet province other than seven."
The HRWLRF stressed that it urged the Lao government to respect the Lao constitution and end what it called the "illegal" takeover of church buildings because Kengweng church and others have the "right to exist as well" and "practice their religious beliefs."
HRWLRF said it had asked the Lao authorities to return the Kengweng church building to Christians "so that they can enjoy religious freedom as guaranteed to them."
The reported crackdown comes amid reports that Communist Laos is on a drive to court foreign investors to tap its natural resources and energy potential and steer the country out of poverty by 2020.
The country of some 6.5 million people has been ruled as a one-party system, with decisions taken by a highly cohesive 11-member politburo of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party.
The president and prime minister are chosen by parliamentarians elected by the people from among 190 candidates hand-picked by the ruling party.
Rights groups say the government views an uncontrolled spread of Christianity as a threat to its power base.