By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
VIENTIANE, LAOS (BosNewsLife)-- Authorities in southern Laos have told Christians to recant their faith in Christ or face expulsion from their village amid a wider crackdown on churches, a human rights official and friend of the believers told BosNewsLife.
Officials in Huay village, located in the Atsaphangthong district of Savannakhet province, warned 53 local believers they will be forced from their homes if they remain Christians and continue to meet in house churches, said Sirikoon Prasertsee, director of the Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).
Authorities announced the order at a September 21 village meeting attended by both Christians and non-Christians, according to local sources.
The Christians rejected the ruling, saying their right to religious freedom is guaranteed under the current constitution, added Prasertsee, who is assisting the Christians with advocacy.
"I believe the situation is part of a wider crackdown," on churches and Christians, he told BosNewsLife.
MORE CHRISTIAN EXPULSIONS
As an example he cited some 50 Christians of 11 families in central Laos who face expulsion from their homes in Nongdaeng village in Bolikhamsai province.
On September 14 the village chief warned Christians they would be deported and lose their homes and other properties if they continue to practice their Christian faith, BosNewsLife learned.
Last week, September 21, the Nongdaeng Christians decided at a gathering that they would "stand firm on continuing practicing their faith and exercising their religious freedom," a well-informed local source said, requesting anonymity.
"I believe that this situation in Nondaeng village needs close monitoring as the risk of them being deported is still very real and present," Prasertsee said.
The Lao government denies wrongdoing and the country has signed the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
GOVERNMENT SINCERITY QUESTIONED
However the HRWLRF has questioned the government's "understanding and sincerity about complying with" that U.N. treaty which Laos ratified in 2009.
"Obviously the right to adopt a religion or belief of choice as well as the right to manifest that religion or belief in cooperate worship is upheld in Article 16 of the Covenant. Any form of coercion impairing that freedom...is also condemned in the Covenant," the group said in a statement.
The HRWLRF has urged the Lao government to respect religious rights as guaranteed in the Lao constitution and international treaties.
Lao Christians comprise just 170,000 people on a 6.6 million population, according to Open Doors, a respected aid and advocacy group supporting reportedly persecuted Christians.
"Laos is unique as one of the few remaining Marxist-Leninist countries that also follows Theravada Buddhism. Being Lao is synonymous with being Buddhist; Christians who do not participate in traditional festivities and ceremonies face Buddhist aggression," it explained.
LAO CHRISTIANS KILLED
Some believers, especially from the Katin or Hmong tribes, are known to have been killed in army clashes in recent years, Open Doors said, while others have reportedly died due to police torture or other mistreatment.
Additionally, "Evangelism is effectively prohibited on the grounds it would create social division. Families see Christianity as breaking family unity," Open Doors explained in a recent analyze on the situation in Laos.
The majority of persecuted Christians are from a tribal background, and face "severe persecution – mostly instigated by animists and spiritists who lose their trade due to conversions," Open Doors added.
Laos ranks number 18 on the organization's annual 2013 World Watch List of 50 countries where it claims Christians suffer the worst persecution.
Open doors said it had urged its supporters to pray that "Christians will respond to monitoring by village officials with wisdom and sensitivity" and for believers from the Katin of Hmong tribes who face potential deadly violence in the Communist-run Asian nation.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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