Repression could affect trade vote in Congress

WASHINGTON, April 26, 2003�Authorities in southern Laos have evicted three Christian families from their homes for refusing to renounce their beliefs, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports. All three families, from Muang Phine district in the southern province of Savannakhet, are now in the care of a Savannakhet Christian church.

A State Department official said U.S. officials were aware that the three families had been evicted from their homes in late March. William Inboden, special adviser to the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, cited reports that Christians in Luang Prabang and elsewhere still face pressure to renounce their faith-�or face eviction or detention. He also warned that such practices could hinder support in Washington for extending normal trade terms to the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.

According to sources inside and outside of Laos, a local church has taken in the three Muang Phine families.

"Frankly, we are disappointed at what appears to be kind of a regression, where earlier it seems like some of the trends were improving," Inboden told RFA�s Lao service. Some people have been arrested "just for speaking freely and openly about their faith�and in other parts of the country, Lao Christians have been ordered to close their churches and to stop their worship practices," he said.

Washington will urge Vientiane to rein in what Lao authorities describe as "over-zealous local officials" who persecute those who practice religion, he said. The U.S. Congress will consider religious freedom when legislators vote on whether to grant favorable U.S. trade status to Laos, he added.

�These steps are not going to be helpful to the image of the Lao government in Congress,� Inboden said.

President George W. Bush's administration openly favors extending Normal Trade Relations (NTR)--formerly known as Most Favored Nation trade status--to Laos. Human rights groups and some members of Congress oppose NTR for Laos, however, citing widespread human rights abuses there.

The State Department�s most recent International Religious Freedom Report excluded Laos from its list of Countries of Particular Concern. But�-along with its 2002 report on human rights practices around the world�-it described Laos�s record on religious freedom as "poor."

The Lao Constitution provides for freedom of religion but stipulates that the state should play an active role in managing the country's religious affairs.

"The [Lao] Government's human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit serious abuses," according to the 2002 Human Rights Report, issued in March of this year. "The Government continued to restrict freedom of religion, and police and provincial authorities arrested and detained more than 60 members of Christian churches, with four members of religious communities in custody or incarcerated for their religious beliefs at year's end."

The report added that: "During the year, government authorities arrested and detained more than 60 Christians, at times holding them in custody for months. In several cases, the prisoners were handcuffed, detained in leg chains and stocks, and subjected to psychological pressure. At least one detainee was severely beaten while in detention."

RFA broadcasts news and information to Asian listeners who lack regular access to full and balanced reporting in their domestic media. Through its broadcasts and call-in programs, RFA aims to fill a critical gap in the lives of people across Asia. Created by Congress in 1994 and incorporated in 1996, RFA currently broadcasts in Burmese, Cantonese, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Mandarin, the Wu dialect, Vietnamese, Tibetan (Uke, Amdo, and Kham), and Uyghur. It adheres to the highest standards of journalism and aims to exemplify accuracy, balance, and fairness in its editorial content.


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