The government of Laos has ordered local authorities to close down churches across the nation, starting in the countryside, according to the London-based Jubilee Campaign.

The church closings are part of a broader, more intense attack on Christianity that includes imprisoning pastors and lay leaders, says Wilfred Wong, a Jubilee researcher and parliamentary officer.

"These are not isolated cases of provincial leaders' persecuting Christians—this is a systematic attempt by the central government to destroy the church in Laos," Wong said by telephone from London.

Open Doors with Brother Andrew reported in July that Lao authorities had closed 58 churches throughout the country during the previous 18 months. The crackdown, according to Wong, in part responds to recent growth in the number of Christians. (Estimates of the number of Protestants vary from 40,000 to 70,000, but sources agree that conversions have increased dramatically during the past five years.)

Eight Christians, seven leaders and one member of one church, were arrested on May 31 and released by July 3 after signing documents renouncing their faith, according to Jubilee, a Christian interdenominational organization (unrelated to the Jubilee 2000 debt-relief movement). The Christians were held in stocks or handcuffs in centers crammed with prisoners suffering oven-like temperatures during the summer. Three of the eight Christians were too weak to walk, Wong says.

"They renounced their faith only to appease the authorities, and deeply regretted it later—some were in tears," Wong says. "The pressure put on them was more intense than in the past."

The Marxist government in Laos has reportedly warmed up to Buddhism, which is adhered to by more than 60 percent of the population ...

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