Pastor Khamxay doesn't remember all of the horrific events during his three trips through a Laotian prison. Repeated blows to the head have affected his memory. But he does recall the horrid stench as well as the five prisoners he led to Christ during a recent imprisonment.
Few Westerners have visited the landlocked country of Laos, one of the world's few remaining communist states and one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries. But reports of intensified persecution of Christians prompted one British Christian agency that ministers to the persecuted church to send an investigative team into Laos to gather testimony from believers like Khamxay.
Already this year 15 Hmong families have been arrested and risk being sent back to Vietnam-an almost certain death sentence. The day after these 58 believers were seized, nine Hmong church leaders from Laos were sentenced to 15 years in jail for failure to control the size of their ministries.
"In Laos what they are asking them to do is to sign a paper renouncing their faith and saying they will not share their faith anymore with people," Release International journalist Andrew Boyd said. "Everybody we spoke to refused to do that, which means they are being subjected to these beatings which are systematic and in several cases went on for three or four months."
Others are brutally murdered, according to the British agency. One local pastor was pulled from his motorbike and slit in the throat. His wife, Matta, now continues his ministry of shepherding the underground church. When Boyd's team visited one of these small congregations, Matta was teaching from 1 Corinthians about love that keeps no record of wrongs.
"There are people exercising radical forgiveness just as Christ said, and there are people who are sharing their faith just as Christ said," Boyd noted.
The state openly encourages Buddhism, and Christians comprise less than 3 percent of the population in Laos. Khamxay, a former animist who is in his 50s, became a Christian through an encounter with a local pastor. When 10 of his 15 children died, he believed spirits had killed them. The pastor prayed for his family and the dying stopped, leading Khamxay to faith in Christ. Today-despite the risk of being jailed yet again-he travels on foot to minister to 500 believers in 18 house churches across Laos.
According to testimony gathered by Release International, jail conditions in Laos are appalling, with food that is unfit for consumption. Many prisoners grow ill, and beatings that target the organs are routine. The agency works to provide support for the families of imprisoned believers and medical care to prisoners who are released from jail.
"The jail was a very small, dark room with no air inside," Khamxay told Boyd with the help of a translator. "There was a very, very bad smell because it was like a toilet in there. When we lay down we could not sleep." Khamxay said he almost died from the beatings given to him after guards learned that five of his eight cellmates had become Christians.
Boyd said, "We heard repeatedly from prisoners in both of these countries-Vietnam and Laos-of being beaten by their interrogators who deliberately target the organs of the body and tell them, 'We are going to kill you slowly.'"
Much of the persecution stems from perceptions about the Vietnam War. One particular group of Christians from the Hmong tribe supported the United States during the conflict, and Laotian authorities believe they are part of a U.S. effort to continue the war against communism. A Hmong independence movement has intensified suspicions.
As a result of these dynamics, Laos is a surveillance society. The village chief is required to report any suspicious activities or visits from outsiders to the government, and many local pastors travel to outlying villages at night.
During one visit to a Laotian village, Boyd learned that his team was being watched. As they filmed a gathering of believers, a man stood outside the meeting place for 30 minutes, quietly observing the foreigners.
Boyd says that although he was relieved to leave Laos with his tapes intact and grateful to return home to a civil society and rule of law, he was also humbled by the unwavering faith of the Laotian church: "We have a church here which is largely asleep, and in these other places where the church is persecuted people value freedom."
"The Bible tells us that we are called to overcome, and for most of us that doesn't mean much," Boyd added. "They're leading prisoners to Christ in those cells, and everybody we spoke to had not a word of complaint. . . . And when they get out of jail they are straight back preaching the gospel, strengthening the underground church, looking after Christians, and leading Laotians to Christ."
Efforts to end the absolute monarchies in two Himalayan countries could provide some relief for fledgling Christian communities in South Asia. The former king of Bhutan-a tiny country in the foothills of the mountain range that boasts Mount Everest and K2-announced in 2001 his plans to modernize and transition Bhutan into a constitutional monarchy. The country held its first parliamentary elections in March.
The decision by the former monarch surprised some Bhutanese who are steeped in years of tradition and customs that revere the king. The country will adopt its new constitution during the first session of parliament scheduled this month and will crown Jigme Khesar Wangchuck-the Oxford-educated son of the former king- the fifth king of Bhutan.
Public worship and evangelism by non-Buddhists are illegal in Bhutan, and the country scored a six-with seven being the worst possible score-in the Freedom House religious freedom report for 2007.
In nearby Nepal, the latest political developments point to the end of a 240-year-old Hindu monarchy. After years of struggle, the Nepalese provisional parliament has voted to abolish the monarchy and create a secular republic.
Hindu militants frequently target the Christian population in Nepal, and the country scored a five on the Freedom House religious freedom index. Most churches choose not to register with the government to avoid harassment, but anticipated changes in the legal system are giving Christians hope that their gatherings could soon be legalized.
On April 10 Nepalese voted for a parliament that will be given the task of drafting a new constitution and creating a new system of government. Due to allegations of fraud and scattered clashes, re-polling was ordered in dozens of districts across the country, and final results were delayed.
The vote to abolish the long-standing Hindu monarchy came as part of a peace deal with former Maoist rebels that were engaged in a decade-long civil war. Although some are skeptical about Maoist intentions in entering the democratic process, others are hopeful that the transition from bullet to ballot will prove beneficial for both the country and its religious minorities.
The church in Nepal has grown from a mere handful in the 1950s to over 400,000 members-almost 2 percent of the population-in recent years.
Bhutanese leaders hope the latest efforts to modernize will improve the country's Gross National Happiness-an effort to measure quality of life that is unique to Bhutan.