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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricts this right in practice. The Constitution prohibits "all acts of creating division of religion or creating division among the people." The Lao Peoples Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and Government appear to interpret this constitutional provision narrowly, thus inhibiting religious practice by all persons, including the Buddhist majority and a large population of animists. Although official pronouncements accept the existence of religion, they emphasize its potential to divide, distract, or destabilize.

The Constitution notes that the State "mobilizes and encourages" monks, novices, and priests of other religions to participate in activities "beneficial to the nation and the people." The Department of Religious Affairs in the Lao National Front for Reconstruction, an LPRP mass organization, is responsible for overseeing all religions. Although the Government does not require registration, all functioning religious groups report to the Department of Religious Affairs quarterly. Reports of activities effectively constitute a system of approval; the approval process for new facilities is bureaucratic and time consuming.

Although the State is secular in both name and practice, members of the LPRP and governmental institutions pay close attention to Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced by more than 60 percent of the population. The Government's observation, training support (including Marxist-Leninist training for monks), and oversight of temples and other facilities constitutes less a form of favoritism than a means to supervise and limit religious freedoms among the dominant Buddhist faith. Many persons regard Buddhism as both an integral part of the national culture and as a way of life.

Estimates of the number of persons who practice various faiths rank Theravada Buddhism first, with from 60 to 65 percent of the population, especially among lowland Lao. Many believers in animism--an estimated 30 percent of the population--are found among Lao Theung (mid-slope dwelling) and Lao Soung (highland) minority tribes. Among lowland Lao, particularly in the countryside, there is both a certain syncretistic practice of, and tolerance for, animist customs among those who devote themselves to Buddhist beliefs and rituals. Christians, including Roman Catholics, constitute at most 1.5 percent of the population. Other minority religions include the Baha'i Faith, Islam, Mahayana Buddhism, and Confucianism. A very small number of citizens follow no religion.

The Party controls the Buddhist clergy (Sangha) in an attempt to direct national culture. After 1975 the Government attempted to "reform" Buddhism and ceased to consider it the state religion, causing thousands of monks to flee abroad, where most still remain. The Government has only one semireligious holiday, Boun That Luang, which is also a major political and cultural celebration. However, the Government recognizes the popularity and cultural significance of Buddhist festivals, and many senior officials openly attend them. Buddhist clergy are featured prominently at important state and party functions. The Lao National Front directs the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Association, which adopted a new charter in April 1998. The Front continues to require monks to study Marxism-Leninism, to attend certain party meetings, and to combine the party-state policies with their teachings of Buddhism. In recent years, some individual temples have been able to receive support from Theravada Buddhist temples abroad, to expand the training of monks, and to focus more on traditional teachings.

In Vientiane there are five Mahayana Buddhist pagodas, two serving the Lao-Vietnamese community and three the Lao-Chinese community. Buddhist monks from Vietnam, China, and India have visited these pagodas freely to conduct services and minister to worshipers. There are at least four more large Mahayana Buddhist pagodas in other urban centers. There are also unconfirmed reports of other, smaller Mahayana pagodas in villages near the borders of Vietnam and China. A few of the pagodas are served by Buddhist nuns. Whether a monk could reside permanently in any of these pagodas is unknown; the key determinant appears to be the expense for the congregation. One Mahayana pagoda in Pakse has at least one monk from Vietnam in residence at all times.

The Catholic Church has a following of 30,000 to 40,000 adherents. It is unable to operate effectively in the highlands and much of the north. However, it has an established presence in five of the most populous central and southern provinces, where Catholics are able to worship openly. There are three bishops, located in Vientiane, Thakhek, and Pakse, who visited Rome in late 1998, where they were able to confer with other bishops and the Pope. Although the Government does not recognize the Vatican, the Papal Nuncio visits from Bangkok, Thailand and coordinates with the Government on assistance programs, especially for lepers and the disabled. A Catholic seminary opened in Thakhek in early 1998 and is expected to train enough priests to serve the Catholic Community. As of June 1999, the status of the Catholic Church in Luang Prabang town continued to be in doubt; there appears to be a congregation there but, due to local obstructions, worship may not be conducted readily. However, Catholics are now able to practice more openly in neighboring Sayabouly province, and a priest visits the Luang Prabang diocese regularly.

In mid-1999 over 250 Protestant congregations conducted services throughout the country for a Protestant community numbering from 30,000 to 40,000 persons. The Lao National Front has recognized two Protestant groups, the Lao Evangelical Church, the umbrella Protestant church, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The Front strongly encourages all other Protestant groups to become a part of the Lao Evangelical Church. The Government has granted permission to four Protestant congregations from the approved denominations to have church buildings in the Vientiane area. In addition the Lao Evangelical Church has church buildings in Savannakhet and Pakse.

There are two active mosques in Vientiane which minister to the Sunni and Shafie branches of Islam. All persons in the 400-strong Islamic community--the vast majority of whom are foreign permanent residents--appear to practice their faith openly, freely attending either mosque. Daily prayers and the weekly Jumaat prayer on Fridays proceed unobstructed and all Islamic celebrations are allowed. Citizens who are Muslims are able to go on the hajj. Groups that conduct Tabligh teachings for the faithful come from Thailand once or twice per year. A former mosque in Sayabouli province closed in the early 1990's due to the lack of an active Islamic community, since most Muslims in the province had moved to Vientiane.

The Baha'i Faith has more than 1,200 adherents and four centers: Two in Vientiane municipality, one in Vientiane province, and one in Pakse. Local spiritual assemblies and the national spiritual assembly routinely hold Baha'i 19-day feasts and celebrate all holy days. The national spiritual assembly meets regularly and is free to send a delegation to the Universal House of Justice in Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel.

There were unconfirmed reports that small groups of followers of Confucianism and Taoism practice their beliefs in the larger cities.

There was no change in the overall status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

The Government's tolerance of religion varied by region. In general central government authorities appeared unable to control or mitigate harsh measures that were taken by some local or provincial authorities against the practices of members of minority religious denominations. Although there was almost complete freedom to worship among unregistered groups in a few areas, particularly in the largest cities, government authorities in many regions allowed properly registered religious groups to practice their faith only under circumscribed conditions.

In other areas, such as Luang Prabang, Bokeo, Savannakhet, and Attapeu, the authorities arrested and detained religious believers and their spiritual leaders without charge. In more isolated cases, provincial authorities instructed their officials to monitor and arrest persons who professed belief in Christianity, Islam, or the Baha'i Faith. For example, sources reported that in Luang Prabang province the authorities in 1998 forced some Christians to sign renunciations of their faith. At least one person who refused has remained under house arrest through June 1999 and another was forced to resign from a government job. In early 1999, citizens in Luang Prabang reported that authorities ordered them to stop completely their Christian activities, under threat of arrest. The order appeared to apply only to new converts; believers of long standing were allowed to continue their beliefs and practices. Despite general inaction by officials on their threats, such threats have had a chilling effect on religious practice in the province. The overwhelming preponderance of arrests in the country have been of religious leaders and the most active and visible proselytizers, not of practitioners. In mid-1998 in a southern province, police refused to release a Lao Christian who was arrested for proselytizing until the detainee had pledged not to proselytize again.

Although authorities tolerate diverse religious practices in the southern Laos panhandle, a pattern of petty local harassment persists. Many converts must pass a gauntlet of harsh government interviews but after overcoming that initial barrier are permitted to practice their new faith unhindered.

Members of long-established congregations have few problems in practicing their faith, but groups of coreligionists seeking to assemble in a new location are thwarted in attempts to meet, practice, or celebrate major religious festivals.

The authorities continue to remain suspicious of parts of the religious community other than Buddhism, including some Christian groups, in part because these faiths do not share a similar high degree of direction and incorporation into the government structure, as is the case with Theravada Buddhism. Authorities especially appear to suspect those religious groups that gain support from foreign sources, that aggressively proselytize among the poor or uneducated, or that give targeted assistance to converts. The Government permits major religious festivals of all established congregations without hindrance.

The Government prohibits foreigners from proselytizing, although it permits foreign nongovernmental organizations with religious affiliations to work in the country. Although there is no prohibition against proselytizing by citizens, there has been increased local government investigation and harassment of citizens who do so under the constitutional provision against creating division of religion.

The Government does not permit the printing of religious texts or their distribution outside a congregation and restricts the import of foreign religious texts and artifacts. However, in practice all approved congregations are able to supply texts to the faithful and decorate their places of worship. The Government requires and routinely grants permission for formal links with coreligionists in other countries. However, in practice the line between formal and informal links is blurred, and relations generally are established without much difficulty.

Recognized, organized religious groups appeared to grow modestly in size and to benefit from increased personal freedoms in economic activity, travel, and availability of media. While the Government continued to prohibit proselytizing by foreigners, there appeared to be an increase in the number of Lao Christian proselytizers across the nation and a rise in conversions. However, there was an equally strong government response to restrict this new activity. These conflicting trends--modest growth and slightly improved freedoms among established groups, alongside a clash between small bands of highly active proselytizers and some government hard-liners--tended to contribute to an overall atmosphere that was not conducive to change, particularly in the easing of existing government restrictions.

Some minority religious groups reported that they were unable during the period covered by this report to register new congregations or receive permission to establish new places of worship, including places in Vientiane. Authorities sometimes advised new branches to join other religious groups having similar historical antecedents, despite clear differences between the groups' beliefs. Some groups did not submit applications for establishment of places of worship because they did not believe that their applications would be approved.

There was an allegation of torture related to religious belief in the case of Khamtanh Phousy, a former captain in the Lao People's Army. Khamtanh was arrested in March 1996 on charges related to the improper handling of money and resources from a foreign organization. Some persons allege that he was imprisoned because of his conversion to Christianity in 1992; this allegation has not been confirmed. During his imprisonment, authorities put him in leg chains (still sometimes a practice in Lao jails) and, after an escape attempt together with other prisoners, put him in a leg stock, an unusual form of punishment in Laos. There is no evidence that this unusual punishment was based on his religious beliefs.

On January 30, 1998, authorities arrested 44 persons gathered at a Christian Bible study session in a private home in Phonekheng village, Vientiane municipality. The Government charged 13 of those arrested with participating in a group assembly for the purpose of creating social turmoil, asked the 5 foreigners in the group to leave the country, and released 26 other persons. The 13 Christians were tried and convicted in March 1998 for violating the Penal Code and were sentenced to 3 years' imprisonment; 3 were released for time served. The Vientiane Municipal Court's record indicates that the judge considered one statement made by a member of the group to be critical of the Government. The Government also stated in court and elsewhere that the group was using religion as a guise for its real purpose: Gathering in a group to create social turmoil. This case demonstrated the link between the Government's use of laws that strictly control freedom of speech and assembly and its efforts to restrict freedom of religion. Upon appeal by the 10 jailed Christians, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision but reduced their sentences; 2 prisoners gained their release in late 1998 and the remaining 8 were released on parole on June 7, 1999.

On October 13, 1998, a Luang Prabang provincial court found six ethnic Khmu Lao guilty under the Penal Code of gathering in a group to create social disorder. The six defendants had been arrested in April 1998. Neither the court decision nor the authorities familiar with the case acknowledged that the six persons are known to officials to be Christians; officials had warned at least one of the six to cease proselytizing activities, and the assembly that was declared illegal was for Christian training activities. The six defendants reportedly admitted to having gathered in an assembly without permission. Of the six, five were released after completing 8-month to 1-year sentences. The sixth defendant received an 18-month sentence and was released on parole in June 1999 but then detained for a different investigation in July. He remains in investigative detention.

In the second half of 1998, there was some small improvement. Authorities made fewer arrests related to religious activities and resolved a few longstanding cases. They also released at least nine detainees. However, in the first half of 1999, there were more unconfirmed reports of arrests, particularly in association with proselytizing by Lao Christians among ethnic minorities in Luang Prabang and other northern provinces and in Savannakhet. Aside from the 8 in Vientiane, unconfirmed reports noted about 30 arrests in direct connection with religious activities; about 10 of those arrests were of persons detained and released in 1998 and rearrested in 1999.

In rare cases, some local authorities harassed citizens who traveled outside the country for short-term religious training on the grounds that these persons had not provided their full travel plans to the authorities prior to departing from the country. At least five such persons were detained for this reason in early 1999. This restriction on freedom of movement appeared to affect primarily those who applied for crossborder passes into Thailand. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the power to grant exit visas and usually grants them as a matter of routine. There is no evidence that the central Government investigated travelers on their return.

As of June 30, 1999, there were no known convicted religious prisoners and an estimated 30 to 35 religious detainees. A few of the religious detainees are singled out for special treatment: They must wear chains on their legs or fixed manacles on their wrists. One detainee was in solitary confinement for a period of 3 to 4 weeks.

In addition authorities frequently arrested and detained persons temporarily because of their relgious beliefs.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Because society places a high premium on harmonious relations, and because the dominant Buddhist faith is generally tolerant of other religious practices, the various religious communities coexist amicably. Although there is no ecumenical movement, and there are no efforts to create greater mutual understanding, cultural mores generally instill respect for longstanding, well-known differences in belief. However, the Government is considerably less tolerant of newly introduced religions, especially "foreign" religions introduced among ethnic groups. Some evidence suggests that the Government makes little effort to ameliorate existing societal discrimination against ethnic minorities when that social tension can be used to restrict religious activities.

A rare, near-violent incident between animists and Christians in Savannakhet in mid-1998 was resolved by authorities quickly, but the nine persons involved were arrested and charged with creating a disturbance, detained for a few months, and then released.

The enhanced status given to Buddhism in Luang Prabang--famed for its centuries-old Buddhist tradition and numerous temples--apparently led some local officials there to act more harshly toward minority religious groups, particularly toward Christians and Baha'i's, than in other areas of the country.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

Beginning in January 1998, the U.S. Ambassador made frequent, repeated private demarches to senior government officials to release the Christians then jailed in Vientiane, to release others detained for their religious beliefs, and to relax restrictions on freedom of religion and restrictions on corollary freedoms of assembly and speech. In coordination with the Embassy, visiting U.S. officials, including a visiting congressional representative and a delegation of congressional aides, also raised the question of the eight Christians who remained imprisoned until June 1999.

On March 26, 1998, a U.S. State Department spokesman publicly criticized the decision of a court to convict 13 Lao who had participated in a 1-week Bible study session in Vientiane on charges that they were assembling to create social turmoil (a violation of the Penal Code). Three of the 13 prisoners were released for time served. Noting that the conviction cast serious doubt on the protection of religious freedoms in the country, the U.S. spokesman called on the Government to find a means under the law to release the 10 persons remaining in jail. By the end of the period covered by this report, all the remaining prisoners had been released on probation, by decision of the prison authorities.

Embassy representatives have discussed each specific incident included in this report with the Human Rights Unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The Ambassador has raised high profile cases with high ranking MFA officials and relevant provincial governors. In addition since November 1998, the Embassy has established an ongoing dialog with the Department of Religious Affairs in the Lao National Front and with other high ranking officials in the National Front.

Embassy representatives have met with all religious leaders in the country. Embassy officials have promoted actively religious freedom despite an environment that is restricted by the government-owned and government-controlled media.

Dr. Robert A. Seiple, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom, visited the country in July 1999. Seiple met with high ranking officials in ministries and offices concerned with administration of religious affairs. He also visited places of worship and met with religious leaders, including the supreme patriarch of the Buddhist hierarchy. Ambassador Seiple stressed to government officials the importance of honoring the universally recognized right to freedom of religion as expressed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Underlining Ambassador Seiple's public diplomacy mission, the Embassy ensured wide press coverage of the visit by national media, which stated explicitly his intent to discuss the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act.

[End of Document]

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Revised last: 10-09-1999