In Laos religious freedom is constitutionally allowed, but virtually prohibited. Government officials at the local levels are unpredictable and may crack down on evangelism, turning Christians like Dao-out of necessity-from church leaders into something like an ambassador representing a foreign interest.
"It's very important to be friends with the authorities in the villages," Dao says.
That might seem counterintuitive when many local government leaders harass church members, force neighbors to track their activities, or throw them in jail. But Dao, a soft-spoken gentleman who seems incapable of anger, wants his Christian brothers and sisters to live quiet and peaceable lives, while also experiencing the freedom to share the gospel without fear. The catch: Many fellow villagers-mostly Buddhists-disturb that peace.
"They are afraid of Christians," Dao said in an interview at a hotel in Laos where several house-church leaders met recently. "For example, some from the government think Christians are from America-from the CIA."
That is a common accusation from the Lao government, one heard mostly concerning the Hmong people; many of them fought alongside U.S. troops against the communists during the Vietnam War.
That allegation gained credibility last month when Vang Pao, a former general in the Secret Army who has lived in U.S. exile since the communists took power in Laos in 1975, was arrested in Sacramento for plotting an overthrow of the Lao government.
But Dao does not share the Hmong heritage, nor does he agitate against the government. Instead he tries to bring government officials together to clear up misconceptions about Christianity and to explain that the distrust of his fellow believers is misguided.
Dao has also intervened on behalf of imprisoned church leaders, recently aiding wives of several pastors seeking help with authorities to release their husbands. It's not the first time he has been drawn into such discussions-other pastors and church leaders have benefited from Dao's ability to defuse conflict between local government officials and Christians in their communities. Some house-church leaders who have been jailed in years past described their experiences to WORLD recently. Their names, like Dao's, have been changed here to protect them from further harassment:
0 Chan leads a church in his home, where approximately 50 people attend regularly. They meet for Sunday worship and have prayer and leadership training meetings on Mondays and Tuesdays. He has helped plant 18 similar churches in about two years.
His village's government on a few occasions has locked his doors, with worshippers inside. They have threatened to burn his house. They also told church members not to meet in his home. "They don't want people to come to Jesus Christ," Chan explained.
Several years ago authorities threw Chan in jail on two separate occasions. He said he was beaten with a large piece of wood the second time, which put him in the hospital. Afterward they set him free with a warning: If he continued with his house church, he would be returned to jail. He was later jailed a third time. "In their eyes, they think I am an enemy." He says in the past year, though, the governing authorities have eased off a bit. Still, he says he must be secretive when he ministers to his church family and to others who request his help.
0 Vong is an elder in a house church where about 56 people attend. He has been in the church for about four years, and the group grew to approximately 20 families before the government threw him and a few other leaders in jail a few years ago. After their imprisonment only four families stayed together, as the others were too frightened to continue. The church has grown back to about 12 families now, he said.
Vong, who has several children, had not been a Christian very long when he was taken away, and neither had his wife. He said she and other family members begged him to deny Christ so he would be released. He said he never considered doing that.
"The Bible says another human can destroy only the physical body, but not life," he told WORLD. "God is the one who gives life, and if somebody kills me, it's no problem, because God gave me eternal life."
He said while he was in jail all he could do was pray, sing, and read God's word. How did he get a Bible and keep it hidden from his guards? His wife smuggled one to him, hidden in a sticky rice basket with some other food. He said he would read at night when the guards "were out playing with their girlfriends."
Vong appeared to use his time well while locked up. "When I was in prison," he said, "five others became Christians."
Vong also said that at other times local police have confiscated Bibles from his church members and burned them. The Lao Evangelical Church, recognized by the national government to oversee all Protestant groups, provided replacements.
0 Kham has undergone more recent duress. Government representatives visit his village regularly, and some fellow residents are watching the activities of Christians there to report anything suspicious to the authorities. He said the officials have visited his church's families individually and warned them about their worship practices and evangelizing. The officials told them Christianity "was from foreigners" and not the religion of the Lao government. He left the village undetected, he said, in order to attend a group meeting with other church leaders in his region.
"If they knew I was answering your questions," he said in the interview, "they will kill me."
He said four families left his church because of fear, but approximately 60 individuals remain. He has been told several times to dissolve his house church, and he even lost his job because of his Christianity.
0 Saeng leads a somewhat larger church and has planted a few other churches. His own church has grown rapidly since he began as pastor during the 1990s.
He says there have been many occasions when people who are ailing or suffering emotionally, but who may not be Christians, request him to come to minister to them in their villages. When he gets called to villages that are not his own, he is often questioned by local authorities. He has been threatened many times with imprisonment and further harassment.
In response Saeng says he called together the church leaders in his area to pray. Their desire, as with all of the men interviewed, is that they are allowed to serve the Lord in peace in their own country. They say they do not promote resistance against the government, nor do they desire to get involved in politics at all. But because fellow citizens and government officials see them as a threat, they end up having to answer to the government, anyway, which forces them to engage in politics.
Reports from human-rights organizations buttress the testimony of the Lao house-church leaders interviewed by WORLD. According to the State Department's 2006 Report on International Religious Freedom, "Authorities in some areas continued to display intolerance for minority religious practice, especially by evangelical Christians."
Most of the prejudice derives from those who don't want to see friends or family converted from their Buddhist or animist beliefs-the predominant religions of Laos. That makes Dao's work as intermediary seemingly without end. Dao at least is able to talk with most government representatives: "It is not a good relationship yet," he said, "but it is improving-very slowly."
-Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal