On the first leg of a 26 February - 9 March four-nation visit to Asia, World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser met with leaders of the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC), Buddhist leaders, high-ranking government officials, and representatives of international ecumenical development agencies. In this first-ever visit of a WCC general secretary to the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Raiser emphasized the need for common commitment to the well-being of the whole society.
The church in Laos
Christianity was brought to Laos by Swiss Brethren missionaries in 1902, but a communist revolution in 1975 banned church activities and the country remained "closed" until the early 1990s. During the communist takeover in 1975, most Christians left Laos and the membership of the LEC dropped to about 10,000. Today, it is the largest Christian church in the country, with a membership of about 100,000 and 400 congregations scattered over 18 provinces.
According to LEC head Rev. Khamphone Kouthapanya, "this growth of believers has been happening since the mid 1990s without any assistance from overseas missionaries, and in the midst of lots of restrictions by local authorities of the communist party-led government. Once viewed as agents of the West by the new revolutionary government and the party, the church is growing fast today and the government and the party have understood the people's urge to believe in their faith. The church contributes to social reconstruction and development, and this has been acknowledged by the government in recent times."
At a public reception, Raiser confirmed that "the LEC has contributed significantly to the development and well-being of the country and the people. The relationship between church and state has been restored and strengthened. What we see now is a church that is thriving, striving and self-confident, a church that fully shares the aspirations of the country. The global ecumenical movement assures its support to and accompaniment of the church in Laos."
Reconstruction and religious freedom
During a meeting with communist party officials, Raiser spoke of the WCC's long-standing commitment to the people of war-torn countries in Indochina
including Laos, and its contribution to Laos' reconstruction. Although there is no WCC member church in the country, the Council has been instrumental in mobilizing support for Laos among ecumenical partners.
Lao government officials briefed Raiser about recent policy changes in the economic area and that of religious freedom. Referring to a newly-promulgated presidential decree on Management and Protection of Religious Activities in the country, Raiser said that "We cannot practise faith without linking our love and concern to our neighbours, and we cannot forget our social involvement." He expressed hope that the mission of the church in Laos will "express faith in God's love and care for all", and that practical application of this belief in actions will "ultimately strengthen commitment to work for the well-being of all in society, irrespective of religious and ideological beliefs".
Religions working together for "our common humanity"
Raiser was received by the Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism, who affirmed that "as religious people, we need to work together for peace and harmony in society". Noting that Buddhism is the religion of the majority of the population in Laos, Raiser suggested that the "core belief" of all religions is "the well-being of all human beings". Peace, healing and reconciliation are the needs of the hour; thus any visible act of cooperation will benefit "our common humanity", he said.
Raiser later visited a hospital run by the Buddhist monks and presented a gift from the WCC, through the Lao Evangelical Church, of ten units of hospital beds as a symbolic expression of inter-religious cooperation.
A landlocked country, Laos is one of Asia's least known and least developed countries, still suffering from the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Ruled by the Lao Revolutionary People's Party since 1975, Laos is now experiencing economic transition from a centrally-controlled planned economy to a market-oriented one.
Meeting with Raiser, representatives of ecumenical development agencies based in Laos shared information on the constraints to development. Twenty-seven years after the Vietnam war, the damage sustained still constitutes a major infrastructural challenge: Laos is the most heavily bombed country on earth - two tons of ordnance per capita. Eighty percent of the country's subsistence farmers are still threatened by unexploded ordnance widely scattered over the cultivable land. Other serious infrastructural deficiencies include a shortage of hospitals, medical clinics, schools, drinking water facilities, power supplies, roads, and telecommunication links. Almost half of the five million population of the country is chronically malnourished. Over the years, European and North American ecumenical agencies have contributed substantially with development assistance and clearance of unexploded ordnance.
At the end of the WCC visit, Rev. Khamphone Kouthapanya said it would contribute significantly to boost the morale of the church in Laos and further strengthen its relations with the government and the party. Accompanied by WCC Asia secretary Dr Mathews George Chunakara, Raiser travels next to Thailand on the second leg of his tour.