Laos Denies Charges of Denying Religious Freedom

( [email protected] ) Jan 13, 2004 10:42 AM EST

HANOI - Laos denied accusations of arresting 11 Christians for holding Christmas services, claiming they were detained for possessing “poisons.”

The Lao Movement for Human Rights, a Paris-based exile group, made the charge against the communist nation two weeks ago. The group claimed that 11 Christians, mostly from the Khmu and Oey ethnic minorities were arrested on December 27 and 28 in the southern province of Attapeu for holding religious services on Christmas Day.

The LMHR also accused the government of persecuting Christians using "religious freedom as a currency exchange and a strategy to obtain international assistance".

However, Lao foreign ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy said in comments carried by Monday’s state-run Vientiane Times newspaper, that such allegations were false.

"the Lao authorities only summoned and detained the people for questioning on charges of possession of poisons,” said Yong. "The spokesman clarified that those people were not charged, but were detained for further investigation.”

Yong also rejected reports by Radio Free Asia that 10 Christians were arrested in the southern province of Savannakhet province on charges of organizing a demonstration to protest the Attapeu arrests.

"He also regretted that some foreign news agencies and Radio Free Asia falsely reported on the so-called human rights movement because there is no such movement in Laos and this news is untrue," the newspaper said.

Yong said the "broadcasting of such unfounded news only aimed to agitate, destroy and divide the solidarity and coherence among the national community in the Lao PDR (People's Democratic Republic)" and misled the international community about the country.

Yong also added that the communist regime allowed complete freedom of worship and accused the foreign media, human rights groups and Lao exiles of seeking to create divisions within the country. The Lao government frequently accuses anti-communist exile groups in the United States of trying to derail efforts by the US government to extend Normal Trade Relations status to Laos.

In last month’s annual report on international religious freedom, the US State Department included Laos on a worst offenders list of totalitarian states that view religions as a threat to their dominant ideology.