Religious Freedom Watchdog USCIRF Maintains Laos on Watch List in 2012 for Serious Abuses of Religious Freedom

Washington DC, USA
Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF)
April 3, 2012

On March 20, 2012, religious freedom watchdog USCIRF keeps Laos on Watch List due to serious religious freedom abuses. The USCIRF publishes its 2012 annual report, covering the period of April 2011 through February 2012.

Serious religious freedom abuses continue in Laos. The Lao government restricts religious practice through its legal code and has not curtailed religious freedom abuses in some rural areas. Provincial officials continue to violate the freedom of religion or belief of ethnic minority Protestants through detentions, surveillance, harassment, property confiscations, forced relocations, and forced renunciations of faith. However, religious freedom conditions have improved for the majority Buddhist groups and for Christians, Muslims, and Baha‘is living in urban areas. Based on these ongoing concerns, USCIRF maintains Laos on its Watch List in 2012.

Background

The Lao government‘s toleration of religious activity varies by region, ethnicity, and religious group. Buddhism, which is deeply embedded in Lao culture and is practiced by the vast majority of the population, is now generally free from restrictions and oversight. Lao Catholics have been allowed to build churches and, in the past several years, to ordain priests and the first new bishop since 1975. Lao Protestants in urban areas also have reported an increased ability to worship and to re-open, build, and expand some religious venues. The small Baha‘i community also reports better working relations with government officials and an expansion of their facilities. Officials with the Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), the agency tasked with monitoring religious activity and carrying out the government‘s religion policy, visited the Baha‘i world headquarters in Israel last year.

The government officially recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha‘i faith. Recognized Christian groups include the Catholic Church, the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC), and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The government requires all Protestant groups to be part of either the LEC or the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, allegedly to prevent ―disharmony,‖ and has not allowed other Protestant denominations to apply for recognition, making their activities illegal and subject to harassment, detention, or other serious abuses. For example, in some provincial areas, Methodist congregations cannot gather for worship, build religious venues, or conduct Christian funeral services. The Methodists and other Protestant denominations continue to seek legal recognition.

The Lao Constitution provides for freedom of religion, but the Prime Minister‘s 2002 Decree on Religious Practice (Decree 92) contains language allowing government control of, and interference in, religious activities. Religious leaders have reported that legally permitted religious activities, such as proselytizing and producing religious materials, are restricted in practice. They also complain that the requirement to obtain permission for most new religious activities is used to restrict their ability to import religious materials and construct religious venues. In addition to the cumbersome approval requirements, the decree contains vague prohibitions on activities that create ―social division or ―chaos and reiterates parts of the Lao criminal code arbitrarily used in the past to arrest and detain ethnic minority Christians.

The Lao government has been either unwilling or unable to take action publicly against provincial authorities or security officials who commit serious abuses against ethnic minority Protestants. Lao authorities continue to view the rapid

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