Christians in Laos are preparing to celebrate Christmas more freely this year after the Lao Evangelical Church received permission to do so from the Ministry of Interior, several believers told Radio Free Asia.
In the past, Christians across the country had to get permission from their village and district authorities – approval that was not granted in many cases.
Even though Laos has a national law protecting the freedom of religion, Christians have been restricted, persecuted and sometimes attacked in the one-party communist country with a mostly Buddhist population. Earlier this year, 15 Christian families and a pastor in Luang Namtha province were evicted and their homes destroyed because they didn’t participate in traditional and cultural activities of the communities.
This year, however, the security minister sent a notice asking the district and provincial authorities to facilitate Christmas celebrations. Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus as the promised messiah, falls on Monday this year, but churches are marking the holiday with various services and gatherings during this time.
“We’re inviting some local leaders to attend our Christmas celebration,” a member of the Lao Evangelical Church in Savannakhet Province, who like other sources in this report requested anonymity for safety reasons, told RFA Lao.
“This year, we don’t have to request permission to celebrate the holy day from the local authorities because we got permission from the central government more specifically from the Ministry of Interior,” he said.
“The ministry has just sent a notice of the authorization to all provinces then the provincial authorities passed it down to the districts,” he said. “A district official told us that there are some changes this year; one of the changes is that we don’t have to request permission from the local authorities.”
The Lao Evangelical Church is the largest registered Christian church in Laos with in 2021 more than 200,000 followers and around 200 pastors.
Restrictions in some places
Still, Christians in Savannakhet Province said they faced restrictions.
“We’re celebrating Christmas this year, but not in our village because our village chief wouldn’t allow us to celebrate the holy day here, we would have to join the celebration in another village in the district,” a follower in Nong district said.
Last year, Christians in three villages in that same district requested permission to celebrate Christmas, but the district authorities gave permission to only one village, Nalao.
When Christians defied those restrictions and set up stages, tables and tents in all three villages, about 20 police and military officers armed with guns came. They dismantled and confiscated all the things the people had set up, prompting the women and children to cry, said a believer from the province.
“We lost everything. We lost about 30 wooden planks, several hundreds of tables, chairs and tents. We rented these materials and equipment: so, we lost a total of ten million kip (US$500), and religious ceremonies were canceled,” he said.
Historically, the district has been resistant to Christians. In 2018, seven Christian leaders in Nong district were arrested then released about a week later for organizing services without proper permission.
A Christian in the district called for more freedom to exercise one’s faith.
“We’d like to call on the authorities to allow us to freely celebrate Christmas and other religious ceremonies in every village, not just only one or two villages,” he said.
Translated by Max Avary. Edited by Malcolm Foster.