Six Christian families have left their Buddhist-majority village in southern Laos following what rights groups say was pressure to renounce their faith, as local authorities say they are working to ease communal tensions and allow the families to return.
Officials in Savannakhet province said the families moved out of Phin district’s Natahall village of their own accord in order to avoid conflict with other residents, while the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) claimed they had been threatened with eviction if they did not renounce Christianity.
The families left Natahall in early March, moving into new homes they built some 5 miles (10 kilometers) away, a Phin district administrative official said.
The district government has sent officials to speak to Natahall residents and officials and “invite” the families to return, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The Phin District leading committee went to advise local authorities and will allow the Christians to return home,” he told RFA’s Lao Service.
“We don’t allow discrimination against different groups.”
The fact that the families, who had adopted Christianity in recent years, followed different religious rituals from the Buddhist community had perturbed village elders, resulting in friction that had festered since the beginning of the year, he said.
Move to expel Christians
HRWLRF, however, reported that the Christian families in the village had faced more severe persecution.
Five Christian families had received eviction orders from Natahall village officials and local police in December, but had resisted the instructions, the Tennessee-headquartered group said earlier this month.
Authorities had “acted to ban the Christian faith from the village and expulse residents who are Christians,” it said.
At a meeting on March 11, village officials had “jeered” the Christians and directed them to abandon their faith, telling them they were following a “foreign American religion,” according to HRWLRF.
Christians are a small minority in Buddhist-majority Laos, where Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Bahais, and followers of Confucianism constitute less than 3 percent of the population, according to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on global religious freedom.
In some provinces in Laos local authorities are suspicious of non-Buddhist religious groups, and sometimes minority groups’ refusal to participate in Buddhist or animist religious ceremonies produces tension in local communities, according to the report.
In September last year, Phin district authorities arrested three Christian pastors as they attempted to meet with a Korean Christian delegation, the report said.
In June, the Phin District military command discharged two men from active duty in the village security forces after learning that they had converted to Christianity, it said.