Laos: Officials Arrest 58 Christians; Church Leaders Sentenced

Vientiane, Laos – Laotian officials arrested 15 Hmong Christian families in Bokeo district on February 22, a day before a court sentenced nine area Hmong church leaders to 15 years in prison for conducting Christian ministry and meetings that had grown beyond acceptable levels for communist officials.

Sources said that the day before the sentencing, Laotian authorities arrived in Ban Sai Jarern village in Bokeo (also called Bo Kew) district with six trucks, in which they hauled away eight Christian families. Authorities also arrested at least seven Christian families from Fai village three miles away, they said.

“It seems they are rounding up all Hmong Christians from Vietnam to send them back to Vietnam,” said one Christian source who requested anonymity for security reasons. “What will happen to them is greatly feared and unknown.”

The arrested families make up a total of 58 Hmong Christians.

In addition, officials have told the Hmong Christians that they will be returning to round up those who have moved there from other districts in Laos.

“They have been told that the officials will be sending them back to their home districts,” the Christian source said. “Many Hmong in Bokeo district have married Hmong from other districts, so this will create tremendous hardship for many families.”

The nine church leaders sentenced for conducting Christian ministry and meetings that had grown too large were rounded up during a police and military sweep of suspected rebels last July that left at least 13 innocent Christians dead. Although the Ban Sai Jarern Church is part of the government-registered and recognized Lao Evangelical Church, its meetings and ministries had become too prominent for the communist officials, sources said.

“There has always been a restriction in Laos for church growth, and for any people’s movement for that matter, but it is not written in their laws – they are supposed to have freedom of religion,” the Christian source said. “The problem was that the church grew in number far beyond their imagination – a growth that the church could not stop.”

Further complicating problems for the Ban Sai Jarern congregation was the presence of the Vietnamese Hmong who had taken refuge in Bokeo district. As former church leaders in Vietnam, they are sought by Vietnamese authorities as well as Lao officials who mistakenly associate them with a rebel separatist movement.

“The Vietnamese Hmong Christians who took refuge in Bokeo district are being dragged into the issue of the separatist movement, an involvement that they have consistently denied,” the source said.

Last July’s government crackdown was unprecedented in the area, which had been free of both separatist activity and government interference in churches. But in 2006, sources said, authorities pursued Hmong who had fled religious or political persecution in Vietnam and had taken refuge in Ban Sai Jarern (or Ban Sai Jaroen).

The village Christians were largely Hmong, including about 20 refugee families from Vietnam, sources said.

Vietnamese and Lao communist authorities have long been hostile to the Hmong for having fought alongside U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War, often viewing them as supporters of separatist leader Gen. Vang Pao.

This hostility is doubled for Christian Hmong, area sources said, as the government considers Protestant Christianity an imperialist foreign religion backed by political interests in the West, particularly the United States. As a result, government forces have indiscriminately detained or killed Hmong Christians whom they mistakenly associated with separatists since previous generations aided U.S. forces in the Vietnam War.

Ban Sai Jarern church members have reported that no one from their congregation has had any contact or communication whatsoever with separatist rebels.

One of the Ban Sai Jarern church leaders rounded up last July, Dzong Tho Siong, was sent back to Vietnam in September. Siong had fled to Laos to avoid Vietnamese persecution in 2002. When his relatives went to visit him in jail in November 2007, sources said, guards told them he was no longer there and that they did not know where he had been taken.

“No one has heard of him again, and it is assumed that he has passed on,” a Christian source said. “The relatives keep going back with food for him, but the jail officials all keep saying he is gone and they do not know where.”

Most of the adults arrested on February 22 had been church leaders in villages in Vietnam who fled rather than face imprisonment, the source said, adding that many of them likewise will face a fate similar to Siong’s without advocacy and intervention.

“Those who have been arrested and are in prison are feeling like no one is interested in their problem,” the Christian source said. “They still do not know where they are being taken to. There are 58 innocent people involved here including women and children, and it is of grave concern what will happen to them.”

It is feared that Laotian officials will require the Vietnamese parents of those arrested to come for their sons and daughters, the source said, and that Vietnamese authorities in turn will arrest the parents for failing to adequately care of them – as supposedly evidenced by their children running away to Laos.

“The parents will endure great hardship as well,” the source said.