By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
VIENTIANE, LAOS (BosNewsLife)– Members of three evangelical churches in southern Laos began reclaiming their church buildings confiscated by Lao authorities in a daring move to worship during Palm Sunday, the countdown to Easter, a representative told BosNewsLife.
“Today [Sunday, April 1] the Kengweng Church and Dongpaiwan Church began reclaiming” their buildings in villages of Savannakhet province because “leaders of the Lao Evangelical Church failed in petitioning the authorities” to get them back back, said Sirikoon Prasertsee, director of Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).
“Members of the Kengweng Church” in Kengweng village “gathered for worship services outside of the church building for the first time since the authorities confiscated the building,” said Sirikoon, whose advocacy group is in close contact with the Christians.
“At the same time, Christians in Dongpaiwan village also assembled for worship outside of the church building that was sealed by the authorities,” he added.
He corrected previous reports that members of Kengweng Church removed a padlock and entered the church, saying “in the last minutes, prior to removing the padlock, they decided to conduct the worship service outside of the church building.”
Yet, they still plan “removing the padlock next week if there are no problems before next Sunday,” explained Prasertsee. “Although they are risking being arrested and detained en masse, Lao Christians hope to reclaim church properties that belong to them,” he stressed.
The 37-year-old church building of Kengweng Church in Kengweng village was closed down February 22 by district officials who also warned Christians not to worship elsewhere in the area, according to Christian activists.
Earlier on September 14, officials and security forces reportedly seized the Dongpaiwan Church building and its land and fish pond, while also removing the cross from the building. Government officials claimed Christians did not obtain approval for constructing the church building and planned to turn it into a school, HRWLRF said at the time.
Elsewhere, Christians of Nadaeng Church in Nadaeng Village also planned to take back their half-a-century old building confiscated in January, but they were awaiting the outcome of the other two churches’ actions, Prasertsee told BosNewsLife.
There was no immediate reaction from Lao officials.
Analysts say Christianity in Laos is generally perceived as a Western ideology that challenges the ruling Communist establishment.
There are about 200,000 devoted Christians in the nation, where most of the 6.4 million people are Buddhists, according to Christian estimates, with reports of growing churches in several areas of the country.