By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
VIENTIANE, LAOS (BosNewsLife)-- The leader of a growing village church in central Laos was behind bars Wednesday, August 22, for refusing to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ, his supporters told BosNewsLife.
Bountheung, who leads the Nongpong village church in Borikhamxai province, was detained Monday, August 20, shortly after local authorities ordered him to leave the village, said Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF), which is in close contact with local Christians
The jailed Christian man, who only uses one name, was earlier given a week to sell his house and [other] properties or the authorities would confiscate them," added HRWLRF in a statement to BosNewsLife.
It was not immediately clear whether authorities had already nationalized his home, following this month's eviction. No date for a trial was immediately known and it was unclear how long the man would remain detained.
Some 300 other Christian residents in Nongpong were "also asked to renounce of their Christian faith in exchange for the right to continue living in the village," HRWLRF said.
Rights activists have linked the reported crackdown to concerns among authorities in this Communist-ruled Asian nation about the spread of Christianity in impoverished villages.
Christian groups estimate there are some 200,000 devoted Christians in the mainly Buddhist country of 6.4 million people, where especially village churches report growth.
Bountheung arrived in the village a decade ago and was initially accepted as a "good resident" by local officials but later experienced harassment, HRWLRF said. "His problems began when, through his witness, at least 300 other villagers decided to embrace the Christian faith," the advocacy group explained.
"As a result, he was summoned three times to the government headquarters for his involvement with the Christian faith. A letter of eviction was issued August 3...and now he is arrested."
The HRWLRF said he has urged the Lao government "to respect the right of the Lao residents in Nongpong village
to...adhere to any religion of [their] choice as guaranteed under the Lao constitution" and international treaties, signed by Laos. "Also, HRWLRF calls for the immediate release of Mr. Bountheung," the group stressed.
There was no immediate response from officials. Christian villagers have also been targeted elsewhere in Laos.
Among the most recent known incidents several Christian families in southern Laos were told this month that they would face imminent expulsion from their homes if they refuse to abandon their Christian faith, rights activists said.
HRWLRF told BosNewsLife that all "five Christian families" comprising some 40 people "were again summoned" by authorities to an August "village meeting" in Nahoukou village located in the Utumpon District of Savannakhet Province.