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Drive to stamp out Christianity in Laos having opposite effect

VIENTIANE, Laos (BP)–If you become an evangelical Christian in Laos, the communist neighbor of Vietnam and Cambodia, you likely will be “asked” to sign a fill-in-the-blank form.

It’s not a new-member card at your neighborhood church.

The form reads in part: “I, (name), who live … in (location), believe in a foreign religion, which the imperialists have used for their own benefit to divide the united front and to build power for themselves against the local authorities. Now, I and my family clearly see the intentions of the enemy, and regret the deeds which we have committed. We have clearly seen the goodness of the Party and the Government … .

“Therefore, I and my family … voluntarily and unequivocally resign from believing in this foreign religion.”

If you sign, you also promise not to participate in this “foreign religion” — Christianity in every reported case — or any of its meetings and ceremonies. You also agree that if the authorities should catch you continuing to practice your faith, you must “accept that the government shall do to me whatever is required by its laws.”

If you don’t sign, you can expect humiliation, harassment and persecution — including probable imprisonment. Some Christians who refuse to sign have been placed in wooden stocks.

The document’s widespread, ongoing use by provincial and local Laotian officials has been authenticated by the World Evangelical Fellowship’s Religious Liberty Commission and other sources. Hundreds of rural Christians reportedly have been forced to sign the form in public, then compelled to participate in animistic sacrifices.

The constitution of Laos, ratified in 1991, guarantees “the right and freedom to believe or not believe in religions.” But that right apparently does not apply to evangelical Christians, who have been persecuted with increasing intensity as they have grown in number. And though the right to believe may exist on paper, the state continues to outlaw evangelism, religious training and church-planting.

Despite the persecution — and in some cases because of it — Christians in Laos have more than doubled, from about 32,000 in 1997 to 80,000 or more today, according to a well-informed observer. Some estimates put the total much higher.

The government reportedly identifies Christianity as “the number one enemy of the state.” It accuses Christians of undermining Laotian culture, national unity — and the traditional dominance of Buddhism, which reinforces existing social power structures. Laotian sources have reported a new government drive, called “The Program,” that aims to eliminate Christianity in Laos by the end of this year and close all Christian places of worship in the countryside.

Some believers renounce their faith under pressure, but the crackdown often backfires:

“The local people say, ‘There must be something to this if the government is taking such a strong stand against it. It must be right,'” the observer stated. As for Christians themselves, “We’ve seen people grow stronger in the midst of persecution. Once they’ve been refined by it, their faith is just so strong.”

Some jailed believers were released in June, but up to 100 remain in custody, according to reports — and that may just be the “tip of the iceberg,” the source said. In rural areas, “there could be a couple of hundred or even more.”

Home to about 5 million people, Laos has been ruled by the socialist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party since 1975. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an annual per capita income of $350. It has experienced marked economic growth in recent years, but more than 80 percent of the population still depends on subsistence farming.

Most Laotians practice Buddhism or animism. Christians remain a fraction of the population — but an expanding one. About 15,000 Christians lived in the country when the communists gained power in 1975, and many fled the country or went into hiding. The church began to expand again in 1990 as revival reportedly swept the countryside.

Another revival began in mid-1997 in an unexpected place: among the oppressed Khmu people of Laos.

“The Khmu are the second-largest people group in Laos (at about 20 percent of the population), but historically they have been slaves to the more powerful peoples of the region,” said the observer. History, he added, also predicted they would fall away from their new faith when challenged.

“But this time they were very responsive and filled with boldness once they got the gospel. In one area, they took (the message) to the governor of their province. They just began to share the gospel with everyone, especially with other Khmu.”

Christian literature, gospel cassettes and gospel radio-listener groups have rapidly increased the spread of the gospel — despite numerous arrests of people caught listening to Christian radio broadcasts. Hundreds of house-church leaders have been trained and now are taking the initiative to train others. In each of several areas, more than 3,000 people — including entire villages — decided to follow Christ within a single year.

What can outside Christians do to help? Appeals to the government to respect believers’ right to worship may help, the observer said. “If the Lord leads people to do that, they need to be obedient and do it,” he said. But he stressed that the opposition is refining and purifying the church.

“We see this persecution as natural,” he reflected. “We’re not praying that the government will change. We’re just praying that they (Christians) would have moments during this persecution when they can have fellowship with other believers, maybe in jail. Pray for God to give them an extra measure of His grace during this time.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at www.sbcbaptistpress.org. Photo titles: SEEKING LIGHT, BUDDHIST DOMINANCE, and WILL SHE HEAR?.

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