Reflections on Returning to Laos after the Pandemic
By Stephen Bailey, IGE Laos Program Officer | May 2022
The last time I was in Laos was January 2020 and the news of a COVID virus in China was just reaching the capital, Vientiane. Like most places Laos shut its borders and most of the country in May 2020. My trip to Laos in May marked two years of illness, death, and economic recession in that country. Quite a few businesses had closed, for sale signs were noticeable, inflation was causing unusually noticeable criticism of Laos’ leaders and the value of the Kip (the national currency) was dropping.
This past May also marked two years in which religious persecution increased for Christians, particularly in the southern provinces. Thankfully, after two intense weeks in Laos and 21 meetings with government and religious leaders it appears that religious persecution has decreased, and religious freedom has begun to slowly expand again. Some of the leaders and groups that I met with included: the Vice President of the Lao Front for National Construction, the Director of Religious Affairs, senior Buddhist monks, Seventh Day Adventist Church’s new president, Lao Islamic leadership, and Christian lawyers.
As I write this, our long time Lao staff, Lee and Bee, are with our Ministry of Home Affairs partners in a remote northern province holding a three-day, seminar for more than 60 government and religious leaders. They are discussing Laos’ commitment to human rights, religious freedom, Lao law and policy on religion, the beliefs, and practices of each officially recognized religious organization in Laos and the issues related to implementing religious freedom locally. All the while our staff will work hard to bring people together in new relationships of solidarity and peace. In early July, Lee and Bee will be heading to a remote southern province with our inter-faith peace building team to hold a one-week peace building workshop. This workshop challenges everyone’s preconceived assumptions and prejudices about difference, diversity, and the challenge of living together in plural communities peacefully.
By the end of this year, IGE plans to host four Religious Freedom Education and Dialogue seminars and six Peace Building workshops. Pray that these events will help continue the slow but steady expansion of freedoms for all religious communities in Laos.