By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
VIENTIANE, LAOS (BosNewsLife)-- Five Christian leaders remained behind bars in southern Laos on Sunday, March 1, after they were sentenced to nine months imprisonment for praying for a sick believer who later died, a rights official told BosNewsLife.
The People's Court of Savannakhet Province cleared Pastor Kaithong, Puphet, Muk, Hasadee, and Tiang, of murder charges but still ruled that they were guilty of "performance of the medical profession without a license”, confirmed Sirikoon Prasertsee, director of watchdog 'Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom' (HRWLRF).
He said the Court accused the men, who use one name, of being "quack doctors" and "sentenced them to nine months imprisonment and a fine of $62 each." The Court also ordered them "to pay an additional fine of $2,450 to the deceased family," a huge amount in impoverished Laos, Prasertsee told BosNewsLife, adding that they "are currently being imprisoned at the Savannakhet Provincial Prison."
The five Christians, who already served eight months behind bars, were expected to appeal the court decision.
Rights activists have questioned the sentencing saying that the deceased woman, Chansee, had requested prayer after hearing from her daughter and another relative that praying could bring healing.
Local Christians said authorities were angered that the five men prayed for Chansee as she had recently embraced Christianity.
After she accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, "all her eight sons and daughters began embracing the Christian faith in April, four of whom are married," Prasertsee explained to BosNewsLife in an earlier interview.
Church and other Christian activities require government permission, but Christians claim the Communist government rarely gives consent. Only a limited number of registered Christian congregations are allowed to operate in this heavily Buddhist nation of nearly 7 million people.
The sentencing also comes amid a wider reported crackdown on devoted Christians in the many rural villages of Laos, BosNewsLife established.
Additionally, "the People’s Court may not have taken into account the severe illness suffered by Mrs. Chansee," added HRWLRF in a statement. "The five Christians seriously believed that God could heal Mrs. Chansee through their prayer of faith and did not foresee her death in their place of prayer."
Following two days of prayer, the Christians transported her to the local 109 Hospital in Utumphone District of Savannakhet province, rights investigators said. The woman, who was suffering from an unidentified two-year illness, eventually died en route from hospital back to her home in Atsaphangthong district on June 21, last year.
The HRWLRF said the action of praying for healing is an exercise of faith practised around the world "and does does not constitute medical practice that would necessitate a medical license, which could only be issued by the Lao Ministry of Health."
Several Evangelical Christians have said that God does not always heals and believe the biggest miracle is when people receive eternal life after accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord.
HRWLRF accused the Court of not proving beyond any reasonable doubt that the five Christians were the reason of Chansee's death. "The verdict of the People’s Court regarding the five Christians appears to have no legal basis," added the group, which has close contacts with local believers.
The group has urged the Lao government to release the Christians and to respect religious freedom as guaranteed in the Lao constitution and United Nations treaties signed by the Asian nation.