U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2004 - Laos

Released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on September 15, 2004, covers the period from July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2004.

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricts this right in practice. Some government officials committed abuses of citizens' religious freedom.

In most parts of the country, officials respected the rights of members of all faiths to worship, but within constraints imposed by the Government. Authorities in some areas, however, continued to display intolerance for minority religious practice, particularly Christian. The Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), the popular front organization for the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), is responsible for oversight of religious practice. The 2002 LFNC-drafted decree on religious practice (Decree 92) is the principle legal instrument establishing rules for religious practice. Although this decree was in part responsible for an improved climate of religious tolerance, authorities used its many conditionalities to restrict some aspects of religious practice. Most fundamentally, Decree 92 institutionalizes the Government's role as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. During the period covered by this report, there were reports of local officials pressuring minority Christians to renounce their faith on threat of arrest or forceful eviction from their villages. There were also several instances of persons detained or arrested for their religious faith. The most prominent of these cases occurred in Savannakhet and Attapeu provinces. At the end of the period covered by this report, there were two known religious prisoners, both members of the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC), the country's domestic Protestant Christian church. During the period, authorities closed one church in Savannakhet Province.

There were generally amicable relations among the various religious groups, although differences in religious beliefs among villagers have led to tensions. Conflicts between ethnic groups have sometimes exacerbated religious tensions. The efforts of some Protestant congregations to separate from the LEC have caused strains within the Protestant community.

U.S. Embassy officials and visiting U.S. Government representatives discussed the need for greater religious freedom at all levels of the Government and the LPRP. The Embassy sought to encourage greater religious tolerance through dialogue, for example by organizing a seminar on religious freedom to promote religious tolerance with senior provincial and central government officials. The Embassy maintained frequent contact with religious leaders.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of approximately 85,000 square miles, and its estimated population is approximately 5.9 million. Almost all ethnic or "lowland" Lao are followers of Theravada Buddhism; however, lowland Lao probably constitute no more than 40 percent of the country's population. Most non-Lao, who are members of at least 47 distinct ethnic groups, are practitioners of animism, with beliefs that vary greatly between groups. Animists are also found among Lao Theung (mid-slope dwelling) and Lao Soung (highland) minority tribes. Among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist animistic religious beliefs have been incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice. Catholics and Protestants constitute approximately 2 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.

Theravada Buddhism is by far the most prominent organized religion in the country, with nearly 5,000 temples serving as the focus of religious practice and faith as well as the center of community life in rural areas. In most lowland Lao villages, religious tradition remains strong. Most Buddhist men spend some part of their life as a monk in a temple, even if only for a few days. There are approximately 22,000 monks in the country, nearly 9,000 of whom have attained the rank of "senior monk," indicating years of study in a temple. In addition there are approximately 450 nuns, generally older women who are widowed, resident in temples throughout the country. The Buddhist Church is under the direction of a Supreme Patriarch who resides in Vientiane and supervises the activities of the Church's central office, the Ho Thammasapha.

Although officially incorporated into the dominant Mahanikai school of Buddhist practice after 1975, the Thammayudh sect of Buddhism still maintains a following in the country. Abbots and monks of several temples, particularly in Vientiane, reportedly are followers of the Thammayudh school, which places greater emphasis on meditation and discipline.

In Vientiane there are four Mahayana Buddhist pagodas, two serving the Lao-Vietnamese community and two serving the Lao-Chinese community. Buddhist monks from Vietnam, China, and India have visited these pagodas freely to conduct services and minister to worshippers. There are at least four large Mahayana Buddhist pagodas in other urban centers and smaller Mahayana pagodas in villages near the borders of Vietnam and China. Buddhist nuns reportedly serve some of these pagodas.

The Roman Catholic Church has 30,000 to 40,000 adherents, many of whom are ethnic Vietnamese, concentrated in major urban centers along the Mekong River in the central and southern regions of the country. The Catholic Church has an established presence in five of the most populous central and southern provinces, where Catholics are able to worship openly. However, the Catholic Church's activities are circumscribed in the north, and a once-thriving Catholic community in Luang Prabang Province is moribund. There are three bishops, located in Vientiane, Thakhek, and Pakse, who were able to visit Rome to confer with church officials. A fourth bishop, assigned to the northern part of the country, has been unable to take up his post in Luang Prabang. The Church's property there was seized after 1975 and there is no longer a parsonage in that city; the bishop remains in residence in Vientiane. An informal Catholic training center in Thakhek is preparing a small number of priests to serve the Catholic community. Several foreign nuns have served temporarily in the Vientiane diocese.

Approximately 300 Protestant congregations conducted services throughout the country for a community that has grown rapidly in the past decade. Church officials estimate Protestants number approximately 60,000, but actual numbers may be significantly higher. The LFNC recognizes two Protestant groups: the LEC, which is the umbrella Protestant church, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The LFNC requires all Protestant groups except Adventists to operate under the LEC's overall direction. Many Protestants are members of ethnic Mon-Khmer groups, especially the Khmu in the north and the Brou in the central provinces. Protestants also have expanded rapidly in the Hmong and Yao communities. In urban areas, the LEC has attracted many lowland Lao followers. Most LEC members are concentrated in the Vientiane municipality, in the provinces of Vientiane, Sayaboury, Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang, Bolikhamsai, Savannakhet, Champassak, Attapeu, and in the Saisomboun Special Zone, but smaller congregations are found throughout the country.

The Seventh-day Adventist congregation numbers fewer than 1,000 followers in Vientiane and Bokeo provinces.

All approved Christian religious faiths own properties in Vientiane city. In addition the LEC maintains properties in Savannakhet and Pakse. Two informal churches, one English-speaking and one Korean-speaking, serve Vientiane's foreign Protestant community.

Within the LEC, some congregations have sought greater independence and have forged their own connections with Protestant groups abroad. As the LEC has grown, an increased diversity of views has emerged among adherents and pastors, and one or two groups quietly have sought to register with the LFNC as separate denominations. Other denominations active in the country are Methodists and Jehovah's Witnesses, both of which have sought official government approval for their activities. Although in theory the Prime Minister's Decree on Religious Practice provides a mechanism for new religious denominations to register, the Government's desire to consolidate religious practice for control purposes has effectively blocked registration of new denominations. New guidelines issued by the LFNC in early 2004 required all other Protestant denominations wishing to establish congregations in the country to do so under the aegis of the LEC. In theory denominations not registered with the LFNC are not allowed to practice their faith, and denominations that have sought registration have expressed concerns about being forced to cease activities, but authorities have made no attempt to interfere in the activities of these "independent" churches.

There are approximately 400 adherents of Islam in the country, the vast majority of whom are foreign permanent residents of Middle Eastern and Cambodian (Cham) origin. There are two active mosques in Vientiane that minister to the Sunni and Shafie branches of Islam.

The Baha'i Faith has more than 1,200 adherents and 4 centers: 2 in Vientiane municipality, 1 in Vientiane Province, and 1 in Savannakhet. A small number of Baha'is also live in Khammouane Province. Small groups of followers of Confucianism and Taoism practice their beliefs in the larger cities.

Although the Government prohibits foreigners from proselytizing, some resident foreigners associated with private businesses or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) quietly engage in missionary activity.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, local level authorities in particular sometimes violated this right. Article 30 of the Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, Article 9 discourages all acts that create divisions among religions and persons, which the LPRP and the Government interpret restrictively and consequently inhibit religious practice by all persons, especially those belonging to minority religions. Although official pronouncements accept the existence of different religions, they emphasize the potential to divide, distract, or destabilize. Moreover, many local officials, as well as some senior officials in the Government and the LPRP, appear to interpret Article 9 as justification to prohibit proselytizing and to discourage religious conversions, especially to Christianity.

The absence of rule of law has created an atmosphere in which authorities may act with impunity against persons regarded as threats to social order. Persons arrested for their religious activities have been charged with exaggerated security or other criminal offenses. Persons detained may be held for lengthy periods without trial. Court judges, not juries, decide guilt or innocence in court cases, and an accused person's defense rights are limited. A person arrested or convicted for religious offenses has little protection under the law. All religious groups, including Buddhists, practice their faith in an atmosphere in which application of the law is arbitrary. Certain actions interpreted by officials as threatening may bring harsh punishment. Religious practice is "free" only if practitioners stay within tacitly understood guidelines of what is acceptable to the Government and the LPRP.

In 2002, the Prime Minister's Office issued Prime Minister's Decree 92 on the Administration and Protection of Religious Practice in an attempt to establish clear rules on the rights and obligations of religious faiths. In 20 articles, Decree 92 establishes guidelines for religious activities in a broad range of areas. While the decree provides that the Government "respects and protects legitimate activities of believers," it also seeks to ensure that religious practice "conforms to the laws and regulations." Decree 92 reserves for the LFNC the "right and duty to manage and promote" religious practice, requiring that nearly all aspects of religious practice receive the approval of the LFNC office having responsibility for the village or district where the activity occurs.

Although the rules legitimize many activities that were previously regarded as illegal, such as proselytizing, printing religious material, owning and building houses of worship, and maintaining contact with overseas religious groups, the qualification that all such activities must receive LFNC approval effectively allows the Government to impose restrictions on religious practice.

Both the Constitution and Decree 92 assert that religious practice should serve national interests by promoting development and education and instructing believers to be good citizens. The Government presumes both a right and a duty to oversee religious practice at all levels to ensure such practice fills this role in society. In effect this has led the Government to intervene frequently in the activities of minority religious groups, particularly Christians, whose practices the authorities felt did not promote national interests or whose activities authorities saw as demonstrating disloyalty to the Government or to the Communist Party.

Although the State is secular in both name and practice, members of the LPRP and governmental institutions monitor Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced by the majority of the ethnic Lao population. The Government's observation, control of the clergy, training support, and oversight of temples and other facilities give Theravada Buddhism the status of an unofficial national religion. Many persons regard Buddhism as both an integral part of the national culture and as a way of life. The increasing incorporation of Buddhist ritual and ceremony in State functions reflects the elevated status of Buddhism in Lao society.

In some areas where animism predominates among ethnic minority groups, local authorities have actively encouraged those groups to adopt Buddhism and abandon their "backward" beliefs in magic and spirits. The Government discourages animist practices that it regards as outdated, unhealthy, or illegal, such as the practice in some tribes of killing infants born with defects or of keeping the bodies of deceased relatives in homes. Aspects of nontraditional religious beliefs have penetrated Protestant congregations in some areas. In Xieng Khouang Province, at least one Hmong Christian congregation adopted apocalyptic practices in its worship service. According to provincial authorities, these beliefs led a senior church member to kill his wife late in 2003, anticipating her resurrection. Some sources have reported the spread of the Chinese-origin "Eastern Lightning" group in some areas in the north.

Although the Government does not maintain diplomatic relations with the Holy See, the Papal Nuncio visits from Thailand and coordinates with the Government on assistance programs, especially for lepers and persons with disabilities.

All persons in the Islamic community appear able to practice their faith openly, freely attending the two active mosques. Daily prayers and the weekly Jumaat prayer on Fridays proceed unobstructed, and all Islamic celebrations are allowed. Muslims are permitted to go on the hajj. Groups that conduct Tabligh teachings for the faithful come from Thailand once or twice per year. During the period covered by this report, the Government more closely scrutinized the activities of the small Muslim population but did not interfere with the community's religious activities.

The small Seventh-day Adventist Church, confined to a handful of congregations in Vientiane and in Bokeo Province, has reported no government interference in its activities in recent years, and its members appear to be free to practice their faith. The Baha'i spiritual assemblies in Vientiane and Savannakhet cities have practiced freely, but smaller communities in Khammouane and Savannakhet provinces have faced restrictions from local authorities. Baha'i local spiritual assemblies and the national spiritual assembly routinely hold Baha'i 19-day feasts and celebrate all holy days. The national spiritual assembly in Vientiane meets regularly and is free to send a delegation to the Universal House of Justice in Mount Carmel, which is in Haifa, Israel.

There is no religious instruction in public schools, nor are there any parochial or religiously affiliated schools operating in the country. In practice many boys spend some time in Buddhist temples, where they receive instruction in religion as well as in academics. Temples traditionally have filled the role of schools and continue to play this role in smaller communities where formal education is limited or unavailable. Christian denominations, particularly the LEC, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Catholic Church, operate Sunday schools for children and young persons. Baha'i spiritual assemblies conduct religious training for children as well as for adult members.

The Government observes two religious holidays, Boun That Luang and the end of Buddhist Lent. The Government recognizes the popularity and cultural significance of Buddhist festivals, and most senior officials openly attend them. The Government generally permits major religious festivals of all established congregations without hindrance, although on occasion local officials have obstructed Christian congregations' observance of religious holidays such as Christmas.

The Government requires and routinely grants permission for formal links with coreligionists in other countries. In practice the line between formal and informal links is blurred, and relations generally are established without much difficulty.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government's tolerance of religion varied by region and by religion, with Protestants continuing to be the target of most restrictions. Although not subjected to harassment, the Buddhist hierarchy is observed closely by the Government. The Buddhist Supreme Patriarch, or Sangkarat, maintains close links to the Party. As a result of the Government's decentralization policy that diffuses power to provinces and districts, it is difficult for central authorities to control or mitigate the harsh measures taken by some local or provincial authorities against members of minority religious denominations. However, the LFNC at times used its offices to mitigate the arbitrary behavior of local officials in some areas where harassment of Christian religious minorities had been most severe. Since 2003, the LFNC's Religious Affairs Department has generally avoided becoming involved in local religious controversies, encouraging local or provincial governments to resolve conflicts on their own and in accordance with Decree 92.

In general the larger urban areas such as Vientiane, Thakhek, Pakse, and Savannakhet cities experienced little or no overt religious abuse, and local church congregations reported an improved atmosphere of religious tolerance. The large Protestant and Catholic communities of several provinces, including Xieng Khouang, Khammouane, and Champassak, reported no difficulties with authorities. Relations between officials and Christians in these areas were generally amicable. Even in these areas, however, religious practice reportedly was restrained by official rules and policies that allowed properly registered religious groups to practice their faith only under circumscribed conditions.

Between 1999 and 2001, local authorities closed approximately 20 of Vientiane Province's 60 LEC churches, primarily in Hin Hoep, Feuang, and Vang Vieng districts, and approximately 65 LEC churches in Savannakhet and Luang Prabang provinces. With a more relaxed policy of religious tolerance beginning in 2002, many of these churches were allowed to reopen, particularly in Vientiane and Luang Prabang provinces. However, officials in several districts of Savannakhet Province did not allow local congregations to reopen closed churches, and 5 or 6 of Savannakhet's approximately 40 churches remained closed at the end of the period covered by this report. Moreover, in 2003 officials closed one longstanding LEC church in Khamsan village in Savannakhet – local LEC Christians and formerly-Christian Buddhists both claimed ownership of the property – and turned down requests by the small LEC congregation there to reopen the church.

In January, officials in Kengkok, Savannakhet Province, returned to the LEC congregation a church that had been seized by village officials in 1999 for use as a kindergarten. The church reopened and at the end of the period covered by this report was freely conducting religious services. To replace the village kindergarten, the U.S.-based NGO Institute for Global Engagement mobilized funds to construct a new facility.

As many as 200 of the LEC's nearly 300 congregations do not have permanent church edifices and conduct worship services in members' homes. Since the promulgation of Decree 92, officials from the LFNC's Religious Affairs Department have taken the view that home churches should be replaced with designated church structures whenever possible. At the same time, village and district-level LFNC offices have not always been forthcoming in authorizing the construction of new churches, and home churches remain the only viable place of worship for most LEC congregations. The LEC encountered difficulties registering new congregations and receiving permission to establish new places of worship or repair existing facilities, including facilities in Vientiane. The Baha'i congregation in Savannakhet's Dong Bang village also was denied permission to construct a spiritual assembly building.

In addition authorities required new denominations to join other religious groups with similar historical antecedents despite clear differences between the groups' beliefs. Since March the LFNC has required all Protestant groups to become a part of the LEC and has not allowed other Protestant churches to operate openly other than the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Nonetheless, there are some practicing Protestant congregations that are not associated with the LEC, and many of them openly conducted services with the knowledge of local authorities.

The authorities remained suspicious of patrons of religious communities other than Buddhism, especially Christian groups, in part because these faiths do not share the high degree of direction and incorporation into the government structure that Theravada Buddhism does. Some authorities criticized Christianity as a Western or imperialist "import" into the country. In the past decade, the LEC has suffered the brunt of local-level efforts to close churches, arrest church leaders, and force members to renounce their faith. The LEC's rapid growth over the last decade, its contact with religious groups abroad, active proselytizing on the part of some of its members, and its independence of government control all have contributed to the Government's and the LPRP's suspicion of the Church's activities. Some authorities also have interpreted Christian teachings of obedience to God as signifying disloyalty to the Government and Party. The membership of the LEC comprises mostly members of ethnic Mon-Khmer tribes and the Hmong, two groups that historically have resisted central government control, which has contributed to the Government's and the LPRP's distrust of the LEC.

Local officials restricted the celebration of major Christian holidays by a small number of congregations. In Attapeu Province, officials arrested 11 Christians gathering for Christmas prayer services in Done Phai and Khang villages, reportedly because the groups had gathered in violation of a district prohibition of their worship services during the Christmas period. Other than these cases, during the period covered by this report there were no reports of official interference with or denial of permission to hold religious celebrations, nor were there any reports of security forces stopping vehicles during Sunday worship hours to prevent villagers from traveling to attend worship services.

The Catholic Church has experienced little overt harassment in recent years, but longstanding restrictions on its operations in the north have shut down the once-thriving Catholic community in Luang Prabang and have left only a handful of small congregations in Sayaboury, Bokeo, and Luang Namtha. Because the Catholic Church's property in Luang Prabang was seized after the creation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in 1975, the Church owns no parsonage in that city and the Bishop of Luang Prabang has remained in Vientiane. Authorities continued to restrict the bishop's travel to his diocese. There were no ordained Catholic priests operating in the north. Several church properties, including a school in Vientiane, were seized by the Government after 1975 and have not been returned, nor has the Government provided restitution. In the central and southern parts of the country, Catholic congregations were able to practice their religion freely.

The Government prohibits foreigners from proselytizing, although it permits foreign NGOs with religious affiliations to work in the country. Foreigners caught distributing religious material may be arrested or deported. In June four foreign tourists distributing video compact discs (VCDs) with Christian religious content were expelled from the country; officials stated that they were expelled for conducting business activities in violation of their tourist visa status. Decree 92 specifically authorizes proselytizing by Lao citizens, providing the LFNC approves the activity. In spite of this provision, many authorities continued to interpret proselytizing as an illegal activity and sometimes seized religious tracts and teaching material from Lao Christians entering the country from abroad. Nevertheless, many religious followers proselytized, resulting in conversions.

Although Decree 92 authorizes the printing of non-Buddhist religious texts and allows religious material to be imported from abroad, it also requires permission for such activities from the LFNC. In practice the LFNC has not authorized Christian denominations to print their own religious material, including Bibles. Some religious material is brought into the country by believers; however, these persons face possible arrest. Because of these restrictions, some approved Christian congregations have complained of difficulties in obtaining Bibles and religious material.

The Government generally does not interfere with citizens wishing to travel abroad for short-term religious training; however, it requires that such travelers notify authorities of the purpose of their travel and obtain permission in advance. In practice many persons of all faiths travel abroad informally for religious training without obtaining advance permission or without informing authorities of the purpose of their travel. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs usually grants exit visas, but on occasion it refuses travel permission to persons going abroad for what it regards as suspect activities. There is no evidence that the Government has investigated travelers upon their return to the country from abroad.

Until recently, government-issued identity cards reported the religious affiliation of all adult citizens. Newly issued cards do not specify religion, nor is religious denomination specified in family "household registers" or in passports, two other important forms of identification. On occasion authorities have withheld new ID cards or household registers from Christians because of their religious beliefs. Incidents of officials threatening to withhold official documentation unless Christians renounced their faith occurred in scattered villages in Houaphanh, Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha, and Savannakhet provinces.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Authorities continued to arrest persons for their religious activities. Most detentions that occurred during the period covered by this report were short, varying from a few days to a few weeks. The greatest number of detainees at one time, including those sentenced and also those arrested and detained without sentence, was approximately 25. Twenty-one of these were ethnic Brou Christians under loose detention in Savannakhet Province. Nine of the detainees were released in July 2003; 12 others were held until October, just before the visit to the country of the U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom. At the end of the period covered by this report, there were two religious prisoners, both in Oudomsai Province. Conditions in prisons were harsh; like other prisoners, religious detainees suffered from inadequate food rations, lack of medical care, and cramped quarters.

There were several reports that authorities arrested or detained persons, often without charge, because they either held or attended unauthorized religious services. Beginning in October 2003, on several occasions police in Khamsan, Savannakhet Province, detained small numbers of worshippers at the LEC church, holding them for several days at a time and forcing them to pay fines. In December 2003, Khamsan authorities detained nine LEC members attending a Sunday worship service. LEC members claimed the police detained the group for holding "unauthorized" worship services. The nine were released several days later. In the same month, police in Attapeu Province detained 11 LEC members in Khang, Donephai, and Somsuk villages of Sanamsai district, ostensibly for possessing "poisons." Provincial officials later reported that the 11 were found to have chemical pesticides that aroused the suspicion of authorities. The arrested Christians, however, reported that police told them they were being detained for "disturbing the peace" by holding unauthorized worship services, a story supported by documentation the authorities issued to the Christians. The detainees were released several days later, but one was subsequently rearrested in March and released from detention 2 weeks afterwards. In April and May, authorities in Phin district of Savannakhet Province arrested 12 ethnic Brou LEC Christians for religious activities. On May 28, they were released from detention.

In August 2003, an LEC member in Attapeu Province was murdered near his home and his body buried in a shallow grave. Although no arrests were made in connection with the case, some witnesses claimed to have seen police taking Somphong away just prior to his murder.

In 1999 two members, Nyoht and Thongchanh, of the Lao Evangelical Church in Oudomxai Province were arrested and charged with treason and sedition, although their arrests appear to have been for proselytizing. Nyoht was sentenced to 12 years in prison and Thongchanh to 15 years. The men remained in detention at the end of the period covered by this report.

Late in 2003, authorities in Phongsaly Province released long-term religious prisoner Phiasong, who had been held for several years without trial for his religious activities.

In most provinces, the preponderance of arrests has been of religious leaders and the most active and visible proselytizers rather than practitioners in general. Despite the end of a formal renunciation campaign, local officials also continued to threaten congregations and believers with arrest. Although officials generally took no action, such threats had a chilling effect on religious practice.

Forced Religious Conversion

Efforts by local officials to force Christians and (in at least one example) Baha'i members to renounce their faith continued in some areas, but not to the same degree as in the past. In some cases, officials threatened religious minorities with arrest or expulsion from their villages if they did not comply, but these threats were rarely acted on. Officials in Attapeu Province's Sanamsai district used threats of arrest, expulsion, and death to coerce LEC members in the district to give up their faith. At least one member of the LEC community was expelled from the province. In several cases, authorities seized the livestock of Christians who refused to renounce their faith. Following growing international attention, pressure on Christians in this province diminished markedly. Christians in the ethnic Hmong village of Nam Kata in Bolikhamsai Province relocated to another part of the province as a result of pressure from local officials and non-Christian villagers who saw their Christian faith as a threat to traditional animist beliefs. In early 2004, officials in Ban Nam Thuam village of Luang Prabang Province threatened arrest and confiscation of ID cards to force LEC members in that village to give up Christianity but did not act on these threats. Christian communities in Houaphanh and Luang Namtha provinces and in the Saisomboun Special Zone on occasion also were threatened by officials with various forms of punishment if they did not give up Christianity, but these threats were not carried out. In May and June, more than a dozen LEC Christian families in Savannakhet Province's Dong Nongkhun and Yang Soung villages were threatened with "problems" with household registration and possible expulsion if they did not give up their religion.

During the period covered by this report, there were no reports of forced renunciations involving profane rituals such as drinking animal blood, which had allegedly taken place in some areas between 1999 and 2001.

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

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

The Government's record of respect for religious freedom, particularly toward its Christian minorities, was for the most part marked by improvements from past years, but with continued intolerance in some areas.

In its official pronouncements, the Government advocated conciliation and equality between religious faiths, and in practice it displayed greater tolerance for the LEC. The LFNC was the lead government organ for promoting greater tolerance of the LEC's activities, but after the publication of Decree 92 in 2002, the LFNC exhorted local officials to resolve conflicts between followers of different religions in accordance with the decree rather than seek LFNC intervention. The LFNC continued to instruct local officials on religious tolerance. Officials from the LFNC made frequent trips to provinces where Christians' rights had been violated to instruct local officials on the need for greater tolerance of Christian congregation activities. The LFNC cooperated with the U.S. Embassy in organizing a first-ever seminar on religious freedom issues in February, aimed at senior district and provincial officials as well as officials from the central Government in Vientiane. Officials from the LFNC and from the U.S.-based Institute for Global Engagement conducted the seminar sessions. The LEC also contributed to the improved climate through an aggressive program of public service, providing developmental assistance and organizing social welfare projects in several areas that had previously experienced religious intolerance.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The various religious communities coexist amicably; society places importance on harmonious relations, and the dominant Buddhist faith generally is tolerant of other religious practices. There is no ecumenical movement, but the LEC and LFNC have taken the lead in trying to organize an ecumenical body aimed at improving understanding and cooperation between faiths. Lao cultural mores generally instill respect for longstanding, well-known differences in belief. However, interreligious tensions arose on rare occasions within some minority ethnic groups, particularly in response to proselytizing or disagreements over rights to village resources. Efforts of some congregations to establish churches independent of the LEC or associated with denominations abroad have led to some tensions within the Protestant community. Frictions also have arisen over the refusal of some members of minority religious groups to participate in Buddhist or animist religious ceremonies.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Ambassador addressed the issue of religious freedom with government leaders at the most senior levels. The Ambassador wrote directly to provincial governors and senior central government officials seeking their intervention in numerous cases of infringements on religious freedom, which in most instances led to immediate corrective action. The Ambassador also routinely raised the issue with provincial officials during his frequent visits to regions outside the capital. The Ambassador visited several areas that experienced religious intolerance, including Bolikhamsai, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Xieng Khouang provinces, and spoke to provincial governors about the state of religious freedom in those areas. The Deputy Chief of Mission traveled to Attapeu, Champassak, and Savannakhet provinces to discuss religious freedom issues with provincial officials and assess the situation in those areas. Other Embassy officers discussed religious freedom with a range of central and provincial officials.

The Embassy maintained an ongoing dialogue with the Department of Religious Affairs in the LFNC. As part of this dialogue, the Embassy informed the LFNC of specific cases of arrest or harassment. The LFNC in turn used this information to intercede with local officials. Embassy representatives met with all of the major religious leaders in the country during the period covered by this report. Embassy officials actively encouraged religious freedom despite an environment restricted by government-owned and -controlled media.

During the period covered by this report, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom met with senior Lao officials on religious freedom in the capital and visited areas of Vientiane Province where instances of intolerance toward Christian minorities had occurred. The Embassy supported and encouraged the visit of the president of the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), an NGO devoted to promoting religious freedom. During a weeklong visit in February, the IGE president traveled to LEC communities in Attapeu, Champassak, and Savannakhet provinces and donated funds for the construction of a kindergarten in Savannakhet. The Embassy actively encourages such high-level visits as the most effective tool available for eliciting greater respect for religious freedom from the Government.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.