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Christianity in Laos

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Christianity is a minority religion in Laos. There has been imprisonment of persons due to their Christian faith in 2006. There are three recognized Churches in Laos: the Lao Evangelical Church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

Protestantism

Approximately 400 Protestant congregations conduct services throughout the country for a community that has grown rapidly in the past decade. Church officials estimate Protestants to number as many as 100,000.

Many Protestants are members of ethnic Mon-Khmer groups, especially the Khmu in the north and the Brou in the central provinces. Numbers of Protestants also have expanded rapidly in the Hmong and Yao communities. In urban areas, Protestantism has attracted many lowland Lao followers. Most Protestants are concentrated in Vientiane Municipality, in the provinces of Vientiane, Sayaboury, Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang, Bolikhamsai, Savannakhet, Champassak, and Attapeu, as well as in the former Saisomboun Special Zone, but smaller congregations are located throughout the country.

Animism in Laos

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Despite the importance of Buddhism to Lao Loum and some Lao Theung groups, animist beliefs are widespread among all segments of the Lao population. The belief in phi (spirits) colors the relationships of many Lao with nature and community and provides one explanation for illness and disease. Belief in phi is blended with Buddhism, particularly at the village level, and some monks are respected as having particular abilities to exorcise malevolent spirits from a sick person or to keep them out of a house. Many wat have a small spirit hut built in one corner of the grounds that is associated with the phi khoun wat, the beneficent spirit of the monastery.

Buddhism in Laos

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Buddhism was the state religion of the Kingdom of Laos, and the organization of the Buddhist community of monks and novices, the clergy (sangha), paralleled the political hierarchy. The faith was introduced beginning in the eighth century by Mon Buddhist monks and was widespread by the fourteenth century. A number of Laotian kings were important patrons of Buddhism. Virtually all lowland Lao were Buddhists in the early 1990s, as well as some Lao Theung who have assimilated to lowland culture. Since 1975 the communist government has not opposed Buddhism but rather has attempted to manipulate it to support political goals, and with some success. Increased prosperity and a relaxation of political control stimulated a revival of popular Buddhist practices in the early 1990s.

Freedom of religion in Laos

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The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricted this right in practice. Some government officials committed abuses of citizens' religious freedom.

During the period covered by this report, the overall status of respect for religious freedom did not significantly change. While respect for non-Protestant groups appeared to improve slightly, respect for Protestant groups appeared to decline in several parts of the country. In most areas, officials generally respected the constitutionally guaranteed rights of members of most faiths to worship, albeit within strict constraints imposed by the Government. Authorities in some areas continued to display intolerance for minority religious practice especially by Protestant Christians. The Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), a popular front organization for the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), was responsible for oversight of religious practice. The Prime Minister's Decree on Religious Practice (Decree 92) was the principal legal instrument defining rules for religious practice. Decree 92 also institutionalized the Government's role as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. Although this decree has contributed to greater religious tolerance since it was promulgated in 2002, authorities have increasingly used its many conditions to restrict some aspects of religious practice.

Religion in Laos

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Laos has an area of 5,000 square miles (220,000 km2) and a population of 6.4 million. Almost all ethnic or "lowland" Lao are followers of Theravada Buddhism; however, lowland Lao constitute only 40-50 percent of the population. The remainder of the population belongs to at least 48 distinct ethnic minority groups. Most of these ethnic minorities are practitioners of animism, with beliefs that vary greatly among groups. Animism is predominant among most Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, as well as among Mon-Khmer and Burmo-Tibetan groups. Even among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist animistic religious beliefs have been incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice. Catholics and Protestants constitute approximately 2 percent of the population. Other minority religious groups include those practicing the Bahá'í faith, Islam, Mahayana Buddhism, and Confucianism. A very small number of citizens follow no religion.

Rural Society Pattern in Laos

For Lao Loum, Lao Theung, and Lao Sung, the rhythm of life is strongly tied to the changing seasons and the requirements of farming. For swidden farming villages, the work year begins in January or February when new fields are cleared. This time of the year is also good for hunting and for moving to a new village. Opium farmers harvest the resin between January and March, depending on location and variety of poppy, but otherwise there are few agricultural activities. Swidden fields are burned around March and must be planted in May or June, just before the first rains. From the time the seeds sprout until August, work revolves around the never-ending task of weeding. Hunting and fishing continue, and with the coming of the rains, the forest begins to yield new varieties of wild foods.

Upland Society in Laos

Upland Society is the Lao Sung (Laotian of the mountain top), include six ethnic groups of which the Hmong, Akha, and Mien (Yao) are the most numerous. As of 1993, the Hmong numbered over 200,000, with settlements throughout the uplands of northern Laos. About the same number of Hmong live in northern Vietnam, and approximately 90,000 live in Thailand; this number does not include the 30,000 Hmong that were living in Thai refugee camps at the end of 1992. Some 60,000 Akha reside for the most part in Louang Namtha, Phôngsali, and Bokeo provinces. The other upland groups are the Phu Noi, found in Phôngsali and northern Louangphrabang provinces, the Mien (in Bokeo and Louang Namtha provinces), and small populations (fewer than 10,000) of Lahu and Kui located in the far northwest. The 1985 census also classified the 6,500 Hô (Haw)--Chinese originally from Yunnan Province--with the Lao Sung. All these groups have significant populations outside Laos, and the bulk of the ethnographic information available is from studies conducted in neighboring countries.

Midland Lao Society

Midland Society is the Lao Theung (Laotian of the mountain slopes), make up about 24 percent of the population and consist of at least thirty-seven different ethnic groups ranging in population from nearly 400,000-- the Kammu--to fewer than 100--the Numbri. Many of the groups have additional members in Thailand or Vietnam. Of the three main ethnic classifications, the differences among the Lao Theung groups are greater than among the Lao Loum or Lao Sung. Little is known about many of these groups, and reasonably complete ethnographic accounts are available only for a few. Most Lao Theung groups reside in a relatively limited geographic area; for example, the Nyaheun, Sedang, and Lavae mostly live in the far southern provinces of Attapu and Saravan (Salavan), whereas the Lamet reside near the border between Bokeo, Oudômxai, and Louang Namtha provinces. The Kammu live scattered throughout the north, from Xiangkhoang to Bokeo.

Lowland Society in Laos

Lowland Society is the Lao Loum (Laotian of the valley), have been the dominant group- -numerically, politically, and economically--since the founding of the Kingdom of Lan Xang in the fourteenth century. The Lao of the Lao Loum ethnic group comprise just over 50 percent of the total population. Other related lowland groups include the Lue and Phu Thai, who together make up an additional 15 percent of the population. Groups such as the Tai Dam and Tai Deng are included by government statistics in the general category Phu Thai despite linguistic and cultural differences from other lowland groups. Variations occur regionally and among different ethnic subgroups, but the general patterns are relatively uniform. Most officials in the RLG were Lao Loum, and despite increases in the number of minority officials in the government, the lowland Lao held a clear majority in the early 1990s. Lowland cultural patterns are frequently considered the norm in designing policy or setting development priorities.

Urban Society in Laos

With a population of somewhat over 250,000 in 1985, Vientiane is the only city of any size in Laos. Three provincial capitals have populations of more than 20,000--Louangphrabang with 20,000, Savannakhet with 109,000, and Pakxe with 50,000. The 1985 census classified 15 percent of the population as "urbanized," but this figure includes the populations of all district centers, most of which are little more than large villages of 2,000 to 3,000 persons. The expanded marketing and commercial opportunities resulting from economic liberalization in 1986 have somewhat stimulated urban growth. Vientiane planners anticipate an annual population expansion of 5.4 percent through the year 2000, and many of the more rural provincial capitals also are growing at a significant rate in the early 1990s.

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