|2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom:
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricts this right in practice. Some government officials committed abuses of citizens' religious freedom.
The Government's already poor record of respect for religious freedom deteriorated in some aspects during the period covered by this report.
The Government sought greater and more uniform regulation of the activities of religious organizations. Although some officials of the central government occasionally attempted to restrain antireligious activities by local officials, such problems continued. Largely due to the actions of a few party cadres in a few provinces, renunciation campaigns, harassment, and detentions increased at the end of 1999, but slackened by mid-2000. Official mistrust of "foreign" religions and ethnic tensions contributed to the deteriorating conditions for religious freedom.
U.S. Embassy representatives remained in contact with religious leaders. They discussed the need for greater religious freedom at working levels in the central Government. The Charge pressed the governor of Luang Prabang province to facilitate greater religious freedom there. The U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom visited the country twice during the period covered by this report. He urged the Government to respect citizens' rights to religious freedom.
Section I. Government Policies on 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 Front for National Construction (formerly known as 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.
The Department of Religious Affairs reportedly drafted regulations for religious organizations in late 1999, but took no further action. It held no public consultations with religious leaders on the new guidelines during the period covered by this report.
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, control of clergy, 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 a way of life. In 1999 the National Assembly formally raised the possibility of a constitutional amendment to make Buddhism the state religion. However, no action was taken on this matter, after the National Assembly leadership indicated that a national consultation would be held before any proposed constitutional amendments would be considered.
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.
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 2000, 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.
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 that 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.
Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom
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.
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.
Although authorities tolerate diverse religious practices in the southern panhandle, a pattern of petty local harassment persists. Many converts must run a gauntlet of harsh government interviews; however, after overcoming that initial barrier, they are permitted to practice their new faith unhindered.
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 in size but to derive only minimal benefit from increased personal freedoms in economic activity, travel, and availability of media. While the Government continued to prohibit proselytizing by foreigners, Lao Christian proselytizers were active in some areas, resulting in some new conversions. However, the Government's response to evangelizing was strong and tended to restrict this activity. These conflicting trends--maintaining limited 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 denominations 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.
Governmental Abuses of Religious Freedom
In areas such as Luang Prabang, Houaphanh, Savannakhet, Oudomxay, Phongsaly, and Attapeu, the authorities arrested and detained religious believers and their spiritual leaders without charge. In Luang Prabang, three evangelical Christians were sentenced on November 26, 1999 to 5 years' imprisonment under Article 66 of the Penal Code for gathering to create social turmoil. Each of the three was a well-known Christian spiritual leader. In an appeal that the three submitted jointly to the national appellate court on February 25, the defendants stated that two were in the house of the third only to stop by while waiting for the return of a neighbor, that they had private business with the neighbor, and that they did not see the third defendant, let alone meet with him.
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, there is clear evidence that in Luang Prabang and Savannakhet provinces the authorities continued to force hundreds of Christians to sign renunciations of their faith. Some civil servants were threatened with loss of their positions if they did not sign the renunciations. Citizens in Luang Prabang since 1999 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 but not to conduct worship or openly practice their faith. Despite general inaction by officials on their threats, such threats have had a chilling effect on religious practice in these provinces. The overwhelming preponderance of arrests in the country have been of religious leaders and the most active and visible proselytizers, not of practitioners. For example, in a southern province in 1998, police refused to release a Lao Christian who was arrested for proselytizing until the detainee pledged not to proselytize again.
In Savannakhet province, district authorities supported by police, military, and representatives of the National Front, closed Christian churches in at least three districts in the latter part of 1999. Most of the churches closed had been built in the past 10 years. Churches of longer standing remained open, and most practitioners who found that their churches had been closed were able to move their activities to these places of worship. In a few villages in which churches had been closed in late 1999, security forces set up roadblocks during Sunday worship hours that prevented villagers from traveling to other places to conduct worship services. Although the closed churches were not reopened, physical obstruction of church attendance appeared to have abated by mid-2000.
Members of long-established congregations have few problems in practicing their faith; however, in the second half of 1999 some churches established a century ago were subjected to harassment by local government officials in Savannakhet. Many groups of coreligionists seeking to assemble in a new location are thwarted in attempts to meet, practice, or celebrate major religious festivals.
Authorities continued to arrest persons for their religious activities. With new arrests in Houaphanh and Phongsaly provinces at the end of 1999 and in early 2000, an estimated 55 to 60 members of religious minorities were in detention at one time. This number decreased with releases in 2000 in Houaphanh and Phongsaly and a release of 16 detainees in Savannakhet in June 2000. However, another 11 persons were arrested in Luang Prabang in March 2000 but then released within a few weeks. In total about 100 persons were arrested and detained at least briefly for their religious activities during the period covered by this report.
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.
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 religions, particularly toward Christian and Baha'i groups, than in other areas of the country.
As of June 30, there were 5 known convicted religious prisoners and an estimated 20 religious detainees. They were detained in the following locations: Savannakhet, 2; Attapeu, 10; Houaphanh, 2; Oudomxay, 4; Luang Prabang, 3; Phongsaly, 2; and Vientiane, 2. In Luang Prabang, three persons were tried and convicted; in Savannakhet, two persons were tried and convicted.
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; others had one foot placed in a fixed stock.
Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens
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.
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
U.S. Embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues included in this report with the Human Rights Unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The Charge has raised high profile cases with high-ranking MFA officials and relevant provincial governors. In addition the Embassy has 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 actively encouraged religious freedom despite an environment that is restricted by the government-owned and government-controlled media.
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Robert A. Seiple visited the country in July 1999 and in January 2000. Seiple met with high ranking officials in ministries and offices concerned with the administration of religious affairs. He also visited places of worship and met with religious leaders, including the supreme patriarch of the Buddhist hierarchy. During his second visit, Ambassador Seiple sat at a first-ever group meeting of religious leaders and officials, where he raised religious freedom as a topic for discussion. Although government officials' presence did not encourage frank dialog, the meeting was unprecedented. Ambassador Seiple stressed to government officials the importance of honoring the universally recognized right to freedom of religion. 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.
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