Lao officials seize church building, convert it into school


SAVANNAKHET PROVINCE, Laos — Authorities in Laos forcibly confiscated a church building in Savannakhet Province due to lack of official permission; the church had not applied for a building permit as the country routinely denies such applications, sources said.

Christians in Laos often do not risk applying for a building permit as it draws unwanted attention and can preempt any chance of building a simple structure, Christian sources said; authorities generally ignore a lack of building permit if religious groups cause no problems.

The Sept. 14 confiscation of the Dongpaiwan village church building by Saybuli district officials, police and military personnel came shortly after officials in Nonsawang village, also in Savannakhet, ordered 10 Christians evicted from the village in July to leave the temporary shelters they had built on their rice paddies, Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported today. Nonsawang village chief Khamsing, identified only by a single name as is common in Laos, told the Christians they could only return to their homes or rice paddies if they gave up their faith, according to a spokesman from HRWLRF.

Such forced renunciations of faith along with detentions, surveillance, harassment and confiscation of property have kept Laos on the "watch list" of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) since 2009. In this year's report, the USCIRF clearly identified ethnic minority Protestants as the primary target of such violations.

The Christians of Dongpaiwan village could only stand back as Saybuli officials, including district head Khamman, police chief Nokan and religious affairs officer Bountha, accompanied by some 20 military and police personnel, seized their land, church building and fish pond, HRWLRF reported.

Officials have since posted soldiers on guard, moved in desks and chairs and converted the 212-member congregation's building into a government school. Christians are no longer allowed onto the property, according to HRWLRF.

While the nation's constitution provides for freedom of worship, including the right to build houses of worship, Lao officials have routinely turned down building applications for unregistered churches, church members told HRWLRF.

Many rural Protestant churches prefer not to come under the umbrella of the tightly controlled, government-approved Lao Evangelical Church. In such cases congregations often erect a simple building without a permit.

In fact constitutional religious freedoms such as the right to establish a place of worship are often abrogated by the Prime Minister's 2002 Decree on Religious Practice (Decree 92), which allows for government control of and interference in religious activities, the USCIRF noted in its 2011 report.

The seizure of the Dongpaiwan church building puts at risk some 20 other simple church structures built without permits in Savannakhet Province, sources said.

While the Dongpaiwan church was founded in 1978, construction of their building only began in 2010 and was completed this April.

Dongpaiwan church members have since resorted to meeting in private homes – an activity also deemed illegal by many local authorities, according to HRWLRF.

More Christians expelled
In late August, officials in Nonsawang village, Thapangthong district of Savannakhet, ordered 10 Christians living on their rice paddies to renounce their faith or abandon their fields, according to a report issued Friday (Sept. 23) by HRWLRF.

The Christians are still refusing to give up their faith but have not yet been evicted from the rice paddies, HRWLRF confirmed today.

Village chief Khamsing and the village religious affairs official had previously pressured the Christians to give up their faith in July. When they refused, officials marched all 10 – including two young children – out of the village with only the possessions they could carry. Lacking the required permit to live elsewhere, the Christians took up residence in small grass huts in their rice fields, HRWLRF reported.

All 10 are members of an extended family: a couple in their 50s, Desorn and Sornpen; their daughter and son-in-law, Pin and Bountha, both 25; their son and daughter-in-law Pai and Toey, 23 and 22, along with their 2-year-old grandson Yona; a second son named Somjal, 18, and a second daughter named Boukham, 10.

The young children are suffering from the poor living conditions, a spokesman told Compass. HRWLRF is appealing to the Lao government to ensure the rights of families in Nonsawang village and in Katin village of Saravan Province, where authorities continue to oppress evicted Christians.

Katin Christians ordered to pay fines
In Saravan Province, three of the 19 families expelled from Katin village in Ta-Oih district in December 2010 and in January recently returned to the village, joining two resident families who believed in Christ after the evictions last December and a further three families who more recently professed faith in Christ.

Village officials, however, ordered the eight families to pay steep fines for their faith.

"So far, the threats are only verbal, and the Christians have refused," an HRWLRF spokesman told Compass. "But officials have asked each family to hand over a pig. One pig has the same value as four to six months of rice production."

On a more positive note, arrangements have now been made for evicted children to receive education, either in local schools or at a boarding school in Savannakhet. The Christians also have access to medical care at the Ta-Oih district hospital if needed, the spokesman said.

But local officials have made no attempt to provide permanent living accommodations or land holdings for the 16 families still living at the edge of the jungle, according to HRWLRF.

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