Lao officials have released three prisoners from Boukham village, Savannakhet province, after several weeks of detention, but restrictions on Christian worship in the village are still in force.
Pastor Sompong Supatto, 32, and two other believers, Boot Chanthaleuxay, 18, and Khamvan Chanthaleuxay, also 18, were released on Oct. 16 against the wishes of the village chief, who had threatened to hand Supatto a life sentence at a maximum-security prison. Village officials remain hostile to the presence of Christians, according to Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).
Authorities initially arrested Supatto and four other believers on July 20, storming their house church and ordering the 63 Christians present to cease worshiping or face arrest and imprisonment for “believing and worshiping God.” The five were briefly detained after the raid and released on condition that they would cease holding worship meetings.
Police targeted the believers because their church was not officially registered. Because such registration comes with strict limitations on church activities, many Christians prefer not to register.
When they continued to gather for worship, police arrested Supatto and two members of the Chanthaleuxay family on Aug. 3, detaining them in handcuffs and wooden foot-stocks in the nearby Ad-Sapangthong district police detention cell. Police initially said they would not release the men until they renounced their faith, HRWLRF reported.
On Aug. 25, the village chief encouraged family members to apply for bail for the two teenagers but said Supatto did not qualify for bail, as his punishment for leading the Boukham church would be “life in prison.” Days later, the chief again pressured family members to sign documents renouncing their faith to secure the teenagers’ release, but they refused.
In September, the chief of Boukham village called a special community meeting to resolve the “problem” of eight resident Christian families who refused to give up their faith. Normally all adults would attend these meetings but on this occasion Christians were excluded.
The meeting ended with plans to expel all 55 Christians from the village; at press time, however, no expulsion had taken place, according to Compass sources.
Following the prisoners’ release, credited to international advocacy efforts, Boukham Christians began traveling to other house churches in the district for worship, but they hoped to resume services in their own community if restrictions were lifted.
Still Worshiping in Another Village, Despite Threats
Christians from Katin village, Saravan province, have continued to meet together despite threats from local authorities.
Officials on July 21 detained 80 Christians in the village after residents seized one believer, identified only as Pew, and poured rice wine down his throat, killing him by asphyxiation. When family members buried him and placed a wooden cross on the grave, officials accused them of “practicing the rituals of the enemy of the state” and seized a buffalo and pig from them as a fine.
They also threatened other Christians with confiscation of livestock if they did not give up their faith, a significant threat as farm animals are essential to the agrarian lifestyle of the villagers and are expensive to replace.
On July 25, officials rounded up 17 of the 20 Christian families in the village – a total of 80 men, women and children – and detained them in a school compound, denying them food in an effort to force the adults to sign documents renouncing their faith. The remaining three families had already signed the documents under duress.
As their children grew weaker, 10 families signed the documents and were permitted to return home. The remaining seven families were evicted from the village and settled in an open field nearby, surviving on food found in the nearby jungle.