“One moment we were talking about how to build peace, the next we were talking about how to unravel the conflict created by the arrest of eight Christians during a Christmas celebration.”

In November 2011 IGE celebrated a new high point in our relationship with the Lao government. Late that month IGE partnered with the Department of Religious Affairs in Laos to hold a three-day workshop on “Solidarity” Training. In this case “solidarity training” was the chosen phrase for peace-building training. For three days, with the help of two Lao Mennonite Central Committee staff (trained at the Mindinao Peace Building Institute Foundation in the Philippines), twenty members of the Lao Front for National Reconstruction, a pastor from the Protestant Evangelical Church of Laos, a lay leader from the Lao Catholic Church, and a representative of the Lao Bahai Center learned about how to build peace in a multi-religious setting.

The government officials entered into the workshop with enthusiasm and were very open to learning about how peace-building relates to religious freedom. The feedback from all those who attended was exceptionally positive and there were calls for more. The predominate feeling was that the peace-building training gave them concepts and skills that carried the potential of helping them address real problems in the countryside. Unlike some of the meetings IGE has been part of in Laos that were dominated by government officials explaining the official views of the state, in this meeting officials became emotionally engaged and raised real life examples from the tensions created by conflicting religious loyalties. Pastors and government officials exchanged experiences and raised difficult questions about peace and religious freedom in Laos.

Only three weeks later, the incongruities of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – and the acute ongoing need for training in peace-building and religious freedom – were vividly manifest as eight Protestant Christians were placed in a provincial prison in southern Laos for holding Christmas celebrations without proper authorization. The news of their arrest spread quickly through the international media. One of the eight was released after paying a hefty fine. The rest refused to pay such a high price for their release. They feel they have a right to celebrate Christmas with other Christians with or without documented permission from the various levels of the Lao government. In fact they had asked permission of the local village headman and received it but had failed to obtain permission from the District and Provincial government offices. As a result security forces arrested the eight leaders during the Christmas celebration of more than two hundred people. Four of these are said to be in handcuffs and wooden stocks.

During my recent trip to Laos right after Christmas I heard both sides of the conflict from the government and local Christians. Why things like this happen in Laos takes time to unravel as there are multiple personal, social, ethnic, and political threads that weave themselves into a full blown conflict. Suffice it to say that in this case all of these levels played a role. Shortly after my trip the Lao Government was able to resolve the matter and all of the detained Christians were released. IGE welcomes the efforts made by the Government to bring this incident to a peaceful resolution.

This kind of conflict periodically occurs in the countryside of Laos and it’s precisely because of this that IGE and the Lao Department of Religious Affairs are working to do another full week of training in peace-building early this year and another one in Northern Laos by mid year.

I sometimes am asked whether I really believe religious freedom issues can be resolved in Laos. The simple answer is always that as long as people are willing to discuss the conflict there is always hope of resolving it and building peace. It’s important in Laos and everywhere not to grow weary of the process of peace. Please support IGE’s efforts to keep the dialogues going in Laos so that a sustainable environment for religious freedom and peace can be established.