New converts to Christianity in Laos, the communist neighbor of Vietnam and Cambodia, are pressured to sign a fill-in-the-blank form.

The form reads in part: "I, (name), who live ... in (location), believe in a foreign religion, which the imperialists have used for their own benefit to divide the united front and to build power for themselves against the local authorities. Now, I and my family clearly see the intentions of the enemy, and regret the deeds which we have committed. We have clearly seen the goodness of the Party and the Government.

"Therefore, I and my family ... voluntarily and unequivocally resign from believing in this foreign religion."

If you sign, you also promise not to participate in this "foreign religion"—Christianity in every reported case—or any of its meetings and ceremonies. You also agree that if the authorities should catch you continuing to practice your faith, you must "accept that the government shall do to me whatever is required by its laws."

Those who refuse to sign can expect humiliation, harassment, and persecution, including probable imprisonment. Some Christians who refuse to sign have been placed in wooden stocks.

The document's widespread, ongoing use by provincial and local Laotian officials has been authenticated by the World Evangelical Fellowship's Religious Liberty Commission and other sources. Hundreds of rural Christians reportedly have been forced to sign the form in public, then compelled to participate in animistic sacrifices.

The constitution of Laos, ratified in 1991, guarantees "the right and freedom to believe or not believe in religions." But many evangelical Christians, who have been persecuted with increasing intensity as they have grown in number, report cases of abuse and retribution for their worship of Christ. The state continues to outlaw evangelism, religious training, and church-planting, despite the constitution's free belief clause.

But in the past three years Christians in Laos have more than doubled, from about 32,000 in 1997 to 80,000 or more today, according to a well-informed observer. Some estimates put the total much higher.

Home to about 5 million people, Laos has been ruled by the socialist Lao People's Revolutionary Party since 1975. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an annual per capita income of $350. Most Laotians practice Buddhism or animism.

About 15,000 Christians lived in Laos when the communists gained power in 1975, and many fled the country or went into hiding. The church began to expand again in 1990 as revival reportedly swept the countryside. Another revival began in mid-1997 among the oppressed Khmu people of Laos.

Article continues below

"The Khmu are the second-largest people group in Laos (at about 20 percent of the population), but historically they have been slaves to the more powerful peoples of the region," said a Laotian observer. History, he added, also predicted they would fall away from their new faith when challenged. "But this time they were very responsive and filled with boldness once they got the gospel. In one area, they took (the message) to the governor of their province. They just began to share the gospel with everyone, especially with other Khmu."

Christian literature, gospel cassettes, and radio-listener groups have rapidly increased the spread of the gospel, in spite of numerous arrests of people caught listening to Christian radio broadcasts. Hundreds of house-church leaders have been trained and now are taking the initiative to train others. In many regions more than 3,000 people—including entire villages—decided to follow Christ within a single year.

The government reportedly identifies Christianity as "the number one enemy of the state." It accuses Christians of undermining Laotian culture, national unity, and the traditional dominance of Buddhism, which reinforces existing social power structures. Laotian sources have reported a new government drive, called "The Program," that aims to eliminate Christianity in Laos by the end of this year and close all Christian places of worship in the countryside.

Some believers renounce their faith under pressure to sign, but the crackdown often backfires:

"The local people say, 'There must be something to this if the government is taking such a strong stand against it. It must be right,'" a Laotian source stated. As for Christians themselves, "We've seen people grow stronger in the midst of persecution. Once they've been refined by it, their faith is just so strong."

"We see this persecution as natural," he reflected. "We're not praying that the government will change. We're just praying that they (Christians) would have moments during this persecution when they can have fellowship with other believers, maybe in jail. Pray for God to give them an extra measure of His grace during this time."

Related Elsewhere

A fact sheet is available from the Asia Society.

Read Encyclopedia Britannica's country article on Laos.

The U.S. Library of Congress offers a comprehensive country study, and Encarta has a map.

Read a July 2000 press release from the USCIRF designating Laos as a "Country of Particular Concern" for its acts of religious repression.

Also read the 1999 USCIRF country report for Laos.

Previous Christianity Today articles on Laos include:

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)