By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
VIENTIANE, LAOS (BosNewsLife)-- Minority Christians in southern Laos faced a grim New Year after seven believers, including church leaders were detained by the Communist government's security forces during violent church raids, a well-informed advocacy official told BosNewsLife.
Sirikoon Prasertsee, who leads the advocacy group Human Rights Watcher for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF), said the detentions occurred late Saturday, December 29, when police stormed a Christmas church service in Nakanong Village located in the Phin District of Savannakhet Province.
He said three male church leaders, identified as Akeo, Kert, and Somwang, were first moved to the regional police headquarters. Soon after, he said, police returned to the Nakanong church and detained 4 more Christian men, who were named as Boulai, Champee, Agàe, and Ayoung.
In Laos, people often use just one name to identify themselves. "They were last seen being handcuffed and led away to the Phin district police headquarters," Prasertsee said.
Security forces also "demolished the stage, cut off the power line, destroyed the sound system, and seized 3 mobile phones," according to HRWLRF, which represents Christians in the area.
Police are reportedly charging the Christians with the "illegal gathering for a Christmas church service without state permission."
The HRWLRF said it had urged the Lao government to release immediately and unconditionally the seven Lao Christians and pay for the damages to the physical properties of the church. It was not immediately clear when and how the government would react to these demands.
However, the detentions are the latest in a series of incidents targeting Christians in Laos.
Activists and local Christians say the persecution is partly linked to concerns within the Communist party and movement Pathet Lao, which has ruled the Southeast Asian nation since 1975, ending a six-century-old monarchy and instituting a strict regime aligned with Vietnam.
Communists view the spread of Christianity as a threat to their power base and way of thinking, BosNewsLife established.
"The government has recently made efforts to increase the monitoring of illegal house churches with the help of registered churches, resulting in the arrest and detention of Christian believers," said the respected aid and advocacy group Open Doors.
"Provincial and local authorities hinder Christian activity. They often cooperate with community leaders like Buddhist monks to put pressure on Christians, especially converts. Families of converts heavily contribute to this persecution within the home."
Christians comprise less than two percent of the mainly Buddhist population of over 7 million people, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The detentions come despite reported Western-style reforms in other areas such as the limited return to private enterprise and the liberalization of foreign investment which began in 1988. Laos also became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997 and the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2013.
In a statement to BosNewsLife, the HRWLRF urged the Lao government to respect "the right of the Lao people to religious freedom and the accompanying rights as guaranteed in the Lao constitution and the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Laos in 2009."
Under these laws, the individual has the right to adopt a religion or belief of choice and the freedom to "manifest that religion or belief" publicly.