Freedom of religion in Laos

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricted this right in practice. Some government officials committed abuses of citizens' religious freedom.During the period covered by this report, the overall status of respect for religious freedom did not significantly change. While respect for non-Protestant groups appeared to improve slightly, respect for Protestant groups appeared to decline in several parts of the country. In most areas, officials generally respected the constitutionally guaranteed rights of members of most faiths to worship, albeit within strict constraints imposed by the Government. Authorities in some areas continued to display intolerance for minority religious practice especially by Protestant Christians. The Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), a popular front organization for the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), was responsible for oversight of religious practice. The Prime Minister's Decree on Religious Practice (Decree 92) was the principal legal instrument defining rules for religious practice. Decree 92 also institutionalized the Government's role as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. Although this decree has contributed to greater religious tolerance since it was promulgated in 2002, authorities have increasingly used its many conditions to restrict some aspects of religious practice.

During the period covered by this report, some local officials pressured minority Protestants to renounce their faith on threat of arrest or forceful eviction from their villages. Such cases occurred in Bolikhamsai, Houaphan, and Luang Namtha provinces. Arrests and detention of Protestants occurred in Luang Namtha, Oudomsai, Salavan, Savannakhet, and Vientiane provinces. Two Buddhist monks were arrested in Bolikhamsai Province for having been ordained without government authorization. In some areas, minority Protestants were forbidden from gathering to worship. In areas where Protestants were actively proselytizing, local officials have sometimes subjected them to "reeducation."

A Christian man in Salavan Province was arrested on April 1, 2006 for refusing to renounce his faith and placed under house arrest until his release in late July 2006. At the end of the period covered by this report, there were four known religious prisoners, as well as at least seven other Protestants who were apparently being detained without charges for other than religious reasons, but in whose cases religion was suspected to have played a role. Conflicts between ethnic groups and movement among villages sometimes exacerbated religious tensions. The efforts of some Protestant congregations to establish churches independent of the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC) continued to cause strains within the Protestant community.

Religious demography

The country has an area of 85,000 square miles (220,000 km2) and a population of 6.4 million. Almost all ethnic or "lowland" Lao are followers of Theravada Buddhism; however, lowland Lao constitute only 40-50 percent of the population. The remainder of the population belongs to at least 48 distinct ethnic minority groups. Most of these ethnic minorities are practitioners of animism, with beliefs that vary greatly among groups. Animism is predominant among most Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, as well as among Mon-Khmer and Burmo-Tibetan groups. Even among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist animistic religious beliefs have been incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice. Catholics and Protestants constitute approximately 2 percent of the population. Other minority religious groups include those practicing the Baha'i faith, Islam, Mahayana Buddhism, and Confucianism. A very small number of citizens follow no religion.