Authorities in Laos have released eight Protestants after using shock treatment to force them to renounce their faith, according to a British human rights monitor. The Christians, from Savannakhet province in southern Laos, were arrested May 31 amid a government campaign to shut down churches, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

The men had been accused of anti-government activities and involvement with foreign political movements in order to weaken the government. The Southeast Asian country is ruled by the communist Lao Peoples Revolutionary Party.

CSW, based in New Malden, England, learned Tuesday that three of the men were released on July 3 but does not know when the others were let go. Seven are leaders of a church in the town of Paksong in Songkhone District: Sipasert Phuadaeng, 52, Bounyarn Robkhob, 58, Tem Chanthara, 56, Kong Phaeng Phrasawat, 36, Phouwanard Trivilaisook, 40, and two others identified only as Mr. Kiloy, 36, and Mr. Puang, 60. The eighth man, Mr. Khemphet, 30, is described as an active member of the church.

The British group said in a statement that the men "were unable to bear the strain of their conditions, which for some included being held in stocks and handcuffs, and agreed to renounce their religion." Later, however, they were overcome with remorse and grief about their decision.

Just before the arrests, authorities gave churches in Songkhone district a deadline of June 1 to close down their meetings, CSW said. Jubilee Campaign, a Christian human rights organization based in Guildford, England, said last week it has received information that the central government of Laos has secretly ordered local authorities to close down churches throughout the country, starting in the countryside.

Laotian Christians have long suffered oppression and persecution under Communism. However, in recent years this persecution has so intensified that it is classified as "extreme," with Laos now appearing with Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and China as the worst persecuting nations in the July 2001 Open Doors World Watch List.

The arrest of the eight Protestants continues a pattern of repression consistent with the government's stated aim to rid the country of Christianity, CSW said. In 1999, the Laotian Government declared that Christians were the "number one enemy of the State," labeling Christianity as an "imperialist foreign religion" backed by the enemies of Laos (primarily the USA).

In addition to repeated arrests of Paksong church members and their relatives this year, parishioners have been told at gunpoint to sign forms to abandon their faith. Many also have been threatened with loss of land, livelihood, and medical care.

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The document believers are being forced to sign acknowledges (among other things) that they regret their practice of Christianity, that they admit the goodness of the (Communist) Party, and if found exercising the foreign religion, they accept the consequences.

The government's campaign against Christians intensified in 1998, according to CSW human rights officer Elisabeth Parker. In January 1998, police raided a church meeting in the capital city Vientiane and arrested 44 Laotians and five foreigners. Eight of the Christians were imprisoned until June 1999, when pressure from foreign governments, particularly the United States, led to their release.

Parker said the Lao government is particularly concerned about a growing evangelical Protestant movement within the Hmong, a minority group that lives mostly in the mountains on both sides of the Laos-Vietnam border. The Pathet Lao Communists, who have ruled since 1975, despise the Hmong for their alliance with the French colonialists in the 1950s and later with the United States during the Vietnam War.

"There is quite a lot of hostility against the Hmong anyway, and so Christianity, being a so-called Western religion, is viewed as one more thing to be cautious of," Parker said. "I think they're afraid that Christians will be a channel for a resistance movement."

Parker said that the Protestants' aggressive conversion efforts also set them up as perceived enemies of the government. "Anything that people take as a higher power is viewed as a threat to political power," she said. Authorities tend to favor the majority Theravada Buddhist religion because of its ability to provide some cohesion to a population fragmented by more than 100 ethnic groups, Parker noted. "Buddhists are able to practice, but the state is using Buddhism to control people and so they are under pressure to compromise and be a channel for state repression.""

About 1.5 percent of Laos's 5.2 million people are Christians, according to the U.S. State Department. Nearly two-thirds identify with Theravada Buddhism, and less than one-third are animists. Parker said members of the Baha'i faith also have been targets of government repression.

World Evangelical Fellowship's Religious Liberty Prayer List contributed to this report.

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Related Elsewhere

The U.S. Department of State's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2000 gives more background on religious freedom in Laos.

A July 2000 press release from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom designated Laos a "Country of Particular Concern" for its acts of religious repression.

Persecution watchdog groups International Christian Concern and Christian Solidarity Worldwide have regularly updated reports on Laos.

For more articles, see Yahoo's full coverage on Laos.

Previous Christianity Today articles on Laos include:

Laotian Christians Thrive Under Persecution | Communist drive to stamp out Christianity in Laos is having an opposite effect. (Oct. 11, 2000)

Enemies of the State | Laotian Christians held in wooden stocks for refusing to recant their faith. (June 5, 2000)

Communist Crackdown Stymies Growing Church | (Jan. 11, 1999)

You've Got Mail | To the Church That Endures Persecution: (Oct. 25, 1999)