The two families of ethnic minority villagers who converted to Christianity in Laos recently did nothing wrong. In fact, they may well think that they have done themselves a world of good by embracing the Christian faith.
Yet that’s not how some of their neighbors in their remote village in the mountainous, communist nation view it. They see Christianity as a subversive, alien creed that does not belong in the country, much less in a community made up of Buddhists who practice age-old traditions.
The two families belong to the Khmu, one of numerous hill tribes that populate the ethnically diverse, economically destitute mountainous nation of just 7 million. The families reportedly embraced Christianity after they were visited by a devout Christian from another village who told them about Christ and his teachings, according to foreign Christian organizations.
However, some fellow villagers have taken umbrage at their conversion.
“Tensions have deepened in a Khmu village where two families have come to Christ and one lives next door to a high-ranking solider who despises Christians,” according to Voice of the Martyrs, a non-denominational international Christian organization.
The neighbor, growing incensed at a meeting of the two families with a Christian leader from another village, interrupted them, demanding to know why the outsider was in the village.
“The Christian calmly explained he had been invited to show the families how to accept Christ,” Voice of the Martyrs says. “When the neighbor protested that it was against the law to convert, the Christian leader corrected him, telling him it was legal to convert to Christianity in Laos.”
By law Christians, who account for around 2 percent of the population, can practice their faith freely (albeit with certain restrictions) in Laos. In practice, though, many local believers choose to hide their faith for fear of being targeted by fellow villagers who might discriminate against them or even expel them from their homes.
In this case, the neighbor has continued harassing and threatening the newly converted Christians in the village. “Pray for these Christians as many of the Christian communities face similar threats,” Voice of the Martyrs called on believers outside Laos.
Officials of the communist central government in the capital of Vientiane have been working with Christian groups to ensure that local officials and village heads in rural areas abide by the law that protects local Christians from harassment and discrimination in their communities.
However, it is local authorities and village heads themselves who may target Christian villagers.
In one recent case, four Christian men were arrested last summer simply for organizing a Christian funeral for a fellow Christian in another village where most other residents are Buddhists. It was a local official who instigated action against the four Christian men, who ended up being detained for several months despite not having been charged with a crime.
“When someone dies, we help by making donations, sharing food and asking [Buddhist] monks to come and pray at the home,” the official was quoted as saying.
“But [the Christians] wanted to do things that violate our traditional customs. They were preparing things that we felt were strange and wrong and do not understand, and so we acted in order to prevent that from happening.”
Such inward-looking attitudes in the country’s rural hinterland prevail largely because Christianity remains little understood among many Laotians. Conditioned by decades of communist propaganda, many locals continue to see the faith as “un-Lao” and a tool of foreign powers, especially the United States, which waged a clandestine war in Laos during the Vietnam War.
“You people believe in America’s god,” one Buddhist official told some Christians recently, according to a local Christian who spoke with Radio Free Asia. “Don’t you remember what America did to our country?”
An ethnic Hmong villager, who is a member of another hill tribe and is a Christian, said that seeking help from villager leaders who are supposed to protect Christian villagers from prosecution can be a futile effort.
“They say that Christians have no rights and that no one will take care of them,” the Hmong villager said. “We even go to speak to the village leaders, but these are the same people who are already angry with Christians.”