Buddhists meeting in their temple in Laos are often exempt from meeting requirements under the Decree of Association. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Buddhists in Laos are often exempt from meeting the requirements of the Decree of Association. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

A law that came into effect in Laos last November “has already been skewed to target religious minorities, especially in rural areas”, according to Mission Network News (MNN).

The Decree on Associations requires all groups, whether religious or otherwise, to acquire government approval for holding meetings and other activities. It also gives authorities the power to ban unregistered associations and prosecute their members.

According to MNN, followers of Buddhism, the majority religion, are “often exempt from meeting requirements”.

“The focus is on groups of people that gather together. Whether it be for Christian purposes or for political purposes or even like a labour union purpose, the government wants to control who you gather with and what you do during [these] gatherings,” explained Todd Nettleton from the Christian organisation Voice of the Martyrs. “So the focus of the law is not necessarily particularly aimed at religion; however, the concern among the Christians in Laos is it’s going to be used primarily to shut down religious activity and religious expression.”

“People who want to do religious activities … face more hurdles now because there [are] more people they need to check in with and get permission from if they are going to do this legally. If they don’t do it legally, they are subject to arrest and persecution,” he added.

When the law was introduced, the Lao Movement for Human Rights and International Federation for Human Rights called it the “last nail in the coffin for Lao civil society”.

In a joint letter to the Prime Minister, rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International urged the government “to repeal or significantly amend the decree to bring it into line with international human rights law and standards”.

Laos is ranked 20th on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. The Marxist-Leninist government views Christianity as a Western ideology, and those who adhere to it as foreign agents.