Seven Lao Christians evicted from their homes in southern Saravan province in October for refusing to renounce their faith have returned to their village, but are being refused permission to rebuild homes demolished by authorities when they were first thrown out, RFA has learned.
The seven, who are members of two families in the Pasing-Kang village of Saravan’s Ta-Oesy district, were evicted on Oct. 10 and forced to live rough in the forest before returning to their village in early November, one of the group told RFA’s Lao Service on Wednesday.
“But we’re still living in temporary huts in the village, and the village chief won’t allow us to build new homes,” the returning Christian said, adding that their former dwellings had been torn down earlier on the village chief’s instruction.
While staying in the forest, the group had lived in two small huts built just outside their village, and were constantly in short supply of food, rice, and water, he said.
“We relied on food aid donated by our fellow Christians, and after living in the forest for about a month, we decided to come back to our village.”
A second member of the group said that the seven who returned still depend on help from others for food and other necessities. “We worry about the future and about how we will be able to survive,” he said.
Treatment violates the law
Local authorities’ treatment of the group violates provisions of The Law on the Evangelical Church, approved and signed into law in Laos on Dec. 19, 2019, which allows Lao Christians the right to conduct services, preach throughout the country, and maintain contacts with believers outside Laos.
Lao churches must fund their own operations, however, and must obey other Lao laws, rules, and regulations.
Speaking to RFA, a member of the Evangelical Church in Saravan province said, “We have reported this situation to the provincial authorities and demanded justice for these seven [Christian] followers, but they say the matter must be handled by the district authorities first.”
Provincial authorities had conducted a seminar on the new law granting greater freedoms for Christian worship and preaching just before the seven villagers were evicted, but authorities below the provincial and district levels may not have understood the provisions of the law, the church member said.
Requests for comment on the case from village, district, and provincial authorities were declined this week, but an official of the Lao Front for the Development of Saravan Province told RFA on Oct. 14 that no report on the evictions had been received by that date.
Cases of abuse still seen
Though improvements in religious freedom conditions were observed in Laos last year, cases of abuse were still seen in remote rural areas, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a report released in May.
“In recent years, the number of people arrested or detained for their religious practices has decreased,” USCIRF said, adding that there were no reports in 2019 of central government authorities carrying out arrests, “although there were several cases at the local level.”
In October, sources reported that four Lao Christians had been held in jail for over three months in Khammouane province for planning funeral rites for another church member—an exercise of religious freedom deemed by village authorities to have violated Lao customs and “divided community solidarity.”
And in February, 14 Christians from three families were evicted from their homes in Tindoi village, Long district, in Luang Namtha because they had refused to participate in an animist Ghost Honoring ritual in their village.