VIENTIANE, LAOS (Worthy News)– Three Lao Christian pastors who were detained in southern Laos in February on charges of "spreading the Christian religion" have been released, Christian rights activists confirmed.
Pastors Bounma, Somkaew and Bounmee were jailed February 5 by the Phin District police in Savannakhet province after a police officer saw them copying and watching Christian film ‘End Times’ in a DVD shop in Phin District market.
The pastors, who use only one name, told interrogators that the three copies were for their own use, but authorities insisted they were "spreading the Christian religion" through the film, said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which closely followed the case.
The shop keeper and one of the pastors were released soon after their detention, but two others remained behind bars. They were moved in early March to a high security section of the prison, usually reserved for serious criminals, Christians said.
"Conditions in this part of the prison are particularly restrictive: prisoners’ legs are chained together and inmates are not allowed to leave the room, even to defecate," CSW added in a statement to Worthy News.
Pastor Bounma was reportedly kicked and beaten by a police lieutenant while in detention in an attempt to force him to confess to spreading Christianity.
There was no immediate response from authorities, but officials had expressed concerns about the spread of Christianity in Communist-run Laos.
"CSW welcomes the release of pastors Bounma, Somkaew and Bounmee in Laos. However, we remain deeply concerned about the false allegations against the three men and about the use of torture to extract a confession," said CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston.
"We urge the Lao authorities to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to ensure that detainees are not subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, in line with the Lao government’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
However Open Doors, which support Christians who reportedly face persecution, has suggested it will take time before the country will become more open for Christianity.
Christians, who comprise roughly 1.5 percent of the 7-million population, face persecution from hard-line Communists as well as non-Christian citizens, the group explained.
"Laos is unique as one of the few remaining Marxist-Leninist countries that also follows Theravada Buddhism," Open Doors said. .
"Being Lao is synonymous with being Buddhist; Christians who do not participate in traditional festivities and ceremonies face Buddhist aggression. "Evangelism is effectively prohibited on the grounds it would create social division."
Laos families also see Christianity as breaking family unity, according to Christians. "The majority of Christians are from a tribal background, and face severe persecution – mostly instigated by animists and spiritists who lose their trade due to conversions," added Open Doors.
Laos has come under international pressure to add freedom to economic reforms in the Asian nation.