An evangelical pastor in southern Laos whose body was recently found mutilated was tortured and brutally murdered, according to police and local and national evangelical leaders.
Sources close to the police investigation told ReligionUnplugged.com they believe See — he went by one name — was killed because of his faith during a time of rapid growth in Laotian churches. The number of baptisms is causing tension in communities distrustful of a religion they see as foreign.
Officially named Lao People’s Democratic Republic since 1975, the country that borders Thailand, Myanmar and China is a socialist, authoritarian one-party state. Approximately 60% of the 6.8 million people in Laos are Buddhists, and ancestral and spirit worship is intertwined with their worldview. Laos is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia but also one of the fastest-growing economies in East Asia and the Pacific, according to the World Bank. The majority of Lao people are still dependent on subsistence farming.
Targeted for his faith
On Oct. 20, Pastor See was expected to attend a meeting with local Christians but failed to arrive at the venue, a two-hour journey from his village.
When See did not show up for the meeting, more than 20 people, including friends and family, searched for him on the mountain pass near his village and the local hospital but found no signs of an accident or him. See leaves behind a wife and eight children, with the youngest just 1 year old.
Like many in Laos, See made his living as a subsistence farmer. In 2015, See and his family turned from their animistic beliefs and embraced Christianity. Soon tensions escalated when the village authorities and local police claimed that Christianity was incompatible with their traditional beliefs and cultural practices. See and other Christians were denied basic rights, like access to drinking water.
In 2018, See’s faith was tested when the local police handcuffed him and detained him in the village school for three days because he hosted a Sunday church service in his home. He was accused of holding an “illegal gathering” even though the services in his home had been going on for more than three years. In Laos, even peaceful assemblies are restricted and monitored to discourage dissent from the government. See was released after provincial police — who oversee village and district police — were notified and a fine was paid.
The authorities also tried to force See to sign an affidavit recanting his faith because they were concerned with the church’s growth and did not want the “foreign religion of Jesus” to interfere with the local worship of idols and spirits. In recent months, See was followed and threatened many times by some of his relatives and neighbors with dire consequences if he continued to share his Christian faith.
Local Christians found See’s body three days after his disappearance. A passer-by found his remains in a ditch off a jungle road and then uploaded pictures to Facebook. See’s body sustained signs of torture. He was severely disfigured.
See’s Bible was found near his body, and his motorcycle was found nearby, on the road.
Local Christians have reported that a black van without license plates was parked on the main road that See drove on to the meeting.
On Monday, Oct. 24, several Lao Evangelical Church leaders and members of his congregation attended the funeral, despite fear and persecution. The Lao church has asked people not to send any money in order to protect the family from unwanted attention.
Growing dangers for Laotian Christians
Christian leaders in Laos say this is a dangerous time for believers because the church is growing rapidly. In 2021, during the COVID-19 lockdown, local ministry leaders planted more than 60 churches and claim to have baptized thousands of people. Many local leaders in Laos say they are being watched and are living in fear for their lives.
“All the believers still love God and are determined to follow him,” a local leader who is part of Pastor See’s church told ReligionUnplugged.com.
“We weep but not like those without hope,” a national Lao leader said. “We know that in Christ we are secure. Attacks such as this have happened before in our country, and each time the kingdom of God has grown. Eventually, nothing can stop the growth of the church.”
Police have started an investigation into the incident and questioned Christian leaders for three hours. Police officials have admitted that See was killed because of his faith and are trying to shift the blame to local officials at a district level rather than the provincial level.
“No words can describe the pain that See’s family and the local churches are experiencing,” a Laotian evangelical leader said. “The great injustice about the whole situation is that those in authority were either directly or indirectly involved in See’s murder.”
Religious freedom in Laos
The persecution of Christians in Laos has increased in the past two years, particularly in the southern part of the country.
Christians in rural areas are viewed with suspicion and are arbitrarily detained, harassed, and expelled from their villages and have their property confiscated for refusing to renounce their faith. Local officials often turn a blind eye to the abuse, with government officials denying that Christians suffer any discrimination or violence.
In February 2021, 12 members of a Christian family in southern Laos were attacked and driven from their home in Dong Savanh by villagers. The family had been evicted from their village once before in 2017. That same month, Cha Xiong, an ethnic Hmong Christian community leader, was shot and killed by an unknown assailant on his way home. His body was found on the side of a street by a villager the next day. Local authorities say they still don’t have a suspect in the case.
A month later, pastor Sithon Thippavong, a Laotian leader in Savannakhet, was arrested for refusing to sign a document renouncing his Christian faith and was later jailed for a year on charges of “disrupting unity” and “creating disorder.”
In October 2020, authorities expelled and destroyed the homes of seven Christians in Saravan province’s Ta Oy district who refused to recant their faith.
Two years earlier, four Lao Christians and three Christian leaders were detained for seven days in Savannakhet’s Phin district for celebrating Christmas “without permission.”
The Lao constitution guarantees citizens the right to “believe or not to believe in religions” in Article 43. The government officially recognizes four religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i faith — but privileges Buddhism.
The Ministry for Home Affairs and the Lao Front for National Development strictly regulate all religious institutions. Christianity is often viewed as a Western religion and is closely monitored.
In 2019, the Laotian government issued Decree 315 on religious freedom: “All Lao citizens have equal rights before the law regarding the belief or non-belief in religion as stipulated in the constitution, law, and regulation of Lao PDR.” However, this is largely ignored in rural areas where persecution of Christians is common.
See’s killing took place even though the Institute of Global Engagement has been sponsoring seminars on religious freedom with the Lao Front of National Construction to foster greater understanding and toleration of religious freedom. “The government is no longer orchestrating the persecution, but it still continues at the local level,” said a former international worker who lived in Laos and wishes to remain anonymous.