A Lao Christian leader held for more than a year in the southern province of Savannakhet in violation of a national law protecting religious practice has been released from jail, Lao sources say.
Pastor Sithon Thippavong, 35, was released on Friday after being convicted by the Provincial People’s Court on April 6 on charges of “disrupting unity” and “creating disorder,” an official of the provincial prosecutor’s office told RFA.
“He was sentenced to one year and two months in jail and fined a total of four million kip [U.S. $426], with two million kip paid for each charge,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Pastor Sithon has already served a little bit more than a year in prison, so the rest of his jail term will be a two-month suspended sentence,” the official said.
Speaking to RFA, a member of Sithon’s church confirmed the pastor had been released, saying the church leader had been freed on Friday after his conviction and sentencing three days before.
“He is now traveling back to his home in [Xonnaboury district’s] Kaleum-Vangkae village,” the source said.
“I’m glad, very glad, that he has been released,” another Lao Christian told RFA, saying he would tell other church members that Sithon had been released from jail and would organize a thanksgiving ceremony celebrating the pastor’s freedom.
“We prayed for Pastor Sithon for more than a year now,” he said. We’re very excited that he’s still alive and was finally saved by God.”
“He may have been sick and frail in prison, but now he’ll be very happy to be able to serve God again,” he said.
Pastor Sithon began preaching Christianity to villagers in Savannaket’s Xonnaboury district in 2011 and was arrested on March 15, 2020 for organizing religious services without authorities’ permission.
On the day of his arrest, Sithon was preparing to conduct a service when seven police officers arrived and demanded that the pastor cancel the proceedings and sign a document renouncing his Christian faith, sources said.
When Sithon refused to sign the document, he was taken into custody, with his family never formally informed of his arrest or the charges made against him.
Lao Christians are allowed by the country’s Law on the Evangelical Church, approved and signed in Laos on Dec. 19, 2019, to conduct services and preach throughout the country and to maintain contacts with believers in other countries.
But in practice, the law appears to apply only in the capital Vientiane and in other large cities, while Christians in the rural areas remain subject to disrespect by the general public and discrimination at the hands of local authorities, sources say.
Four Lao Christians and three Christian leaders were detained for seven days in 2018 in Nakhanong village in Savannkhet’s Phin district for celebrating Christmas without permission.
And in October, authorities in Saravan province’s Ta Oy district, in the country’s south, evicted seven Christians and destroyed their homes when they would not renounce their faith—a clear violation of the law.
The Christians then spent two months living rough in the forest, but were allowed to return to their village in December though they have been forbidden from rebuilding their homes.
Though improvements in religious freedom conditions were observed in Laos in 2019, cases of abuse were still seen in remote rural areas, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a report released in May 2020.
Reported and translated by Max Avary for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.