International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

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 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. Renunciation campaigns and harassment increased. However, while believers continued to be detained, arrested, and incarcerated, the number of detentions throughout the country decreased by half during the period covered by this report. During the period covered by this report, government authorities closed more than 65 churches. There were 20 known religious prisoners or detainees at the end of the period covered by this report.

There are generally amicable relations among the various religious groups in society, although there were some ethnic tensions that contributed to the deteriorating conditions for religious freedom.

U. S. Embassy representatives discussed the need for greater religious freedom at working levels of the central Government. The Charge pressed high-level government officials to allow greater religious freedom. U.S. Embassy representatives remained in contact with religious leaders. The Embassy helped to facilitate two visits by the Institute for Global Engagement, a private foundation dedicated to promoting religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

Laos has a total area of approximately 85,000 square miles, and its estimated population is approximately 5.2 million. 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 Roman 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 because churches are not allowed to register, and worship services are restricted in some areas. 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 were able to visit Rome to confer with other bishops and the Pope. A Catholic seminary opened in Thakhek in early 1998 and is expected to train enough priests to serve the Catholic Community.

Approximately 250 to 300 Protestant congregations conducted services throughout the country for a Protestant community numbering from 30,000 to 40,000 persons. 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. Several of these properties, belonging to the Lao Evangelical Church, were seized by the Government after 1975, but were returned to the church in the early 1990's.

There are approximately 400 adherents of Islam in the country, the vast majority of whom are foreign permanent residents. 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 four centers: Two in Vientiane municipality, one in Vientiane province, and one in Pakse.

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

Although the Government prohibits foreigners from proselytizing, there were reports that a very small number of both foreign missionaries and citizens were engaged in missionary work during the period covered by this report.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

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 the 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. Some local officials appeared to enforce this law on the assumption that any religious conversion, for example, to Christianity, represented a "creating a division among the people."

The Constitution provides 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, an LPRP mass organization or peoples' network 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 and results in few new facilities.

The Department of Religious Affairs reportedly drafted regulations for religious organizations in late 1999. It arranged for the public reading of the draft regulations in November 2000, but held no substantive public consultations with religious leaders on the new guidelines during the period covered by this report. The draft regulations were under consideration by the Prime Minister at the end of 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 as a way of life.

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.

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.

All persons in the Islamic community appear to be 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. 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.

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 meets regularly and is free to send a delegation to the Universal House of Justice in Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel.

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. In general central government authorities appeared unable--and in some cases, unwilling--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 Savannakhet, Luang Prabang, and Vientiane provinces, district authorities, supported by police, military, and representatives of the Lao Front for National Reconstruction closed more than 65 Christian churches during the period covered by this report. Unlike church closings in prior years, a number of these churches were of long standing, with the vast majority of believers having adopted the faith of their parents. For example, in Vientiane provincial authorities closed at least 12 churches, including a church in a refugee returnee village agreed to at the time that the village was established under U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) auspices.

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 required 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.

Although authorities tolerate diverse religious practices in the southern panhandle, a pattern of petty local harassment persists there. 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 continued to remain suspicious of patrons 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. Some authorities criticized Christianity in particular as a Western or imperialist "import" into the country. They especially appear to suspect those religious groups that gain support from foreign sources, that aggressively proselytize among the poor or uneducated, that proselytize ethnic minorities, or that give targeted assistance to converts. The Government generally permitted major religious festivals of all established congregations without hindrance, but local authorities in some areas prohibited them or reversed prior authorizations. In one case in Vientiane province, authorities broke up a Christian church service on Christmas day.

At the end of the period covered by this report, 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 government 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.

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 many remain in self-exile. The Government has only one semireligious holiday, Boun That Luang, which also is 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, organized under a charter adopted in 1998. The Front continued 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 prohibits foreigners from proselytizing, although it permits foreign nongovernmental organizations with religious affiliations to work in the country. Foreigners caught distributing religious material may be arrested or deported. There is no prohibition against proselytizing by citizens. For example, Lao Christian proselytizers were active in some areas, resulting in new conversions; however, 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 their adherents and decorate their places of worship.

In a few villages in which churches had been closed, security forces set up roadblocks during Sunday worship hours that prevented villagers from traveling to other places to conduct worship services. Many groups of coreligionists seeking to assemble in a new location are thwarted in attempts to meet, practice, or celebrate major religious festivals.

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. Some church closings and forced renunciations in some districts of Savannakhet appeared to be reprisals against these persons. 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.

Government-issued identity cards report the religious affiliations of all adult citizens. In many areas, minority believers are identified incorrectly as "Buddhist" on identity cards in what appears to be routine bureaucratism and indifference. However, Christians who seek to be identified properly often are denied this right. When police question members of groups assembling for religious purposes, if the improperly issued ID card does not confirm the stated reason for assembling, the bearer may be subject to additional scrutiny and questioning.

Some evidence suggests that the Government makes little effort to ameliorate existing societal discrimination against ethnic minorities when that social tension can be cited as a pretext to restrict religious activities.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Authorities continued to arrest persons for their religious activities. Members of religious minorities were held in long-term detention or served jail terms at one time during the period covered by the report. The greatest number of detainees was from 30 to 35 at the end of 2000 and during the first 5 months of 2001. At the end of June 2001, the number of detainees stood at 20; 5 persons were arrested in Luang Prabang in May.

In addition a total of more than 45 other persons were arrested and detained at least briefly for their religious activities during the period covered by this report. Of those, 11 were known convicted religious prisoners and an estimated 9 religious detainees. These persons were detained in the following locations: Phongsaly, 1; Savannakhet, 3; and Luang Prabang, 5.

In Luang Prabang, three persons were tried and convicted; in Oudomxai, five persons were tried and convicted; in Houaphan, three persons were tried and convicted. Three of the members of religious minorities convicted in Oudomxai were convicted of working with foreign religious groups and given jail sentences to of from 12 to 15 years, which observers believed to be unduly harsh. In addition, the Government had not presented evidence to prove that the three ever left the country by the end of the period covered by this report.

In areas such as Sayabouly, Bolikhamxai, Vientiane province, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, Oudomxai, and Phongsaly, the authorities arrested and detained without charge religious believers and their spiritual leaders. For example, in Luang Prabang, three evangelical Christians were sentenced in November 1999 to 5 years' imprisonment under Article 66 of the Penal Code for gathering to create social turmoil. Their sentences were reduced on appeal to 3 years in August 2000. Each of the three was a well-known Christian spiritual leader.

In February 2001, the Government deported five foreign practitioners of Falun Gong for distributing religious materials. In April 2001, security officials also briefly detained nine Filipino nationals associated with Campus Crusade who were proselytizing in Luang Prabang. After confiscating their religious materials, the authorities allowed them to leave the country on their scheduled tour.

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 Vientiane, 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 Laos have been of religious leaders and the most active and visible proselytizers, not of practitioners.

A few of the religious detainees are singled out for special mistreatment; some were forced to wear handcuffs while in detention.

Forced Religious Conversion

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. Some minor local officials reportedly forced renunciations that sometimes involved forced participation in animist traditions, including the drinking of animal blood. Other officials forced some believers to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes against their will.

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 III. Societal Attitudes

The various religious communities coexist amicably; society places a high premium on harmonious relations, and the dominant Buddhist faith is generally tolerant of other religious practices. 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, interreligious tensions arose on rare occasions within some minority ethnic groups in response to proselytizing. For example, in one incident in May 2001, a large group of parents in a Hmong village was angry with Hmong Christian ministers because the young adults (some under age 18 and still under parental control) were abandoning their animist spiritual traditions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

U.S. Embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues with the Human Rights Unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The Charge d'Affaires has raised high profile cases with high-ranking MFA officials and other Embassy officers have discussed the topic with 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 met with all of the major religious leaders in the country during the period covered by this report. Embassy officials have actively encouraged religious freedom despite an environment that is restricted by the government-owned and government-controlled media.

In December 2000 and June 2001, the Embassy helped to facilitate the visit of a representative of the Institute for Global Engagement, a private foundation promoting religious freedom and interdenominational dialog, who had frank exchanges with Lao officials.

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