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Laos - Religion

The country has an area of 85,000 square miles and a population of 6.3 million. Theravada Buddhism is the faith of nearly all ethnic or "lowland" Lao, who constitute 40 to 50 percent of the overall population of the country. The remainder of the population belongs to at least 48 distinct ethnic minority groups. Most of these ethnic minorities are practitioners of animism and ancestor worship. 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 beliefs have been incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice. Roman Catholics and Protestants constitute approximately 2 percent of the population. Groups that together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include the Bahai Faith, Islam, Mahayana Buddhism, and Confucianism. A very small number of citizens follow no religion.

Theravada Buddhism is by far the most prominent organized religion in the country, with more than 4,000 temples serving as the focus of religious practice and the center of community life in rural areas. In most lowland Lao villages, religious tradition remains strong. Most Buddhist men spend some part of their lives as monks in temples, even if only for a few days. There are approximately 20,000 monks in the country, more than 8,000 of whom have attained the rank of "senior monk," indicating years of study in temples. In addition more than 400 nuns, many of whom are older widows, reside in temples throughout the country. The Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organization (LBFO) is under the direction of a supreme patriarch who resides in Vientiane and supervises the activities of the LBFO's central office, the Ho Thammasapha.

Although officially incorporated into the dominant Mahanikai School of Buddhist Practice after the communist Pathet Lao came to power in1975, the Thammayudh sect of Buddhism still maintains a following in the country. Abbots and monks of several temples, particularly in Vientiane, reportedly follow the Thammayudh School, which places greater emphasis on meditation and discipline.

There are four Mahayana Buddhist temples in Vientiane, two serving the ethnic Vietnamese community and two serving the ethnic Chinese community. Buddhist monks from Vietnam, China, and India have visited these temples freely to conduct services and minister to worshippers. There are at least four large Mahayana pagodas in other urban centers and smaller Mahayana temples in villages near the borders of Vietnam and China.

Catholic leaders estimate there are approximately 45,000 Catholics, many of whom are ethnic Vietnamese, concentrated in major urban centers and along the Mekong River in the central and southern regions. The Catholic Church has an established presence in five of the most populous central and southern provinces, and Catholics are generally able to worship openly. No ordained Catholic priests ministered in the north, and the church's activities there remain restricted.

The Protestant community has grown rapidly over the past decade, and Lao Evangelical Church (LEC) officials estimate that Protestants number as many as 100,000. More than 400 LEC congregations conduct services throughout the country. The LEC maintains properties in the cities of Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Pakse, and LEC officials confirm that the authorities in all three locations recognize LEC ownership.

The constitution and some laws and policies protect religious freedom; however, other laws and policies restricted this right in practice. The prime minister's Decree on Religious Practice (Decree 92) is the principal legal instrument defining rules for religious practice; it institutionalizes 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, particularly at the provincial and district levels, have sometimes used its many conditions to restrict some aspects of religious practice.

The law does not recognize a state religion; however, the government's financial support and promotion of Buddhism, along with its willingness to exempt Buddhist groups from a number of restrictions, gave the religion an elevated status. In most areas officials typically respected the constitutionally guaranteed rights of members of most religious groups to worship, albeit within strict constraints imposed by the government. Authorities in some of the country's 17 provinces continued to be suspicious of non-Buddhist religious communities and occasionally displayed intolerance for minority religious groups, particularly Protestants, whether or not they were officially recognized.

Local officials reportedly interfered with the right of Protestants to worship in a number of locations, particularly in Luang Namtha, Savannakhet, and Saravan Provinces, and Vientiane City. Arrests and detentions of Protestants reportedly occurred during the reporting period in Luang Namtha and Khammouan Provinces. Local officials reportedly pressured Protestants to renounce their faith on threat of arrest or forceful eviction from their villages in Salavan and Luang Namtha Provinces.

While animists generally experienced little interference from the government in their religious practices, the government actively discouraged animist practices that it deemed outdated, dangerous, or illegal, such as the practice in some tribes of killing children born with defects or burying the bodies of deceased relatives underneath homes. In some areas where animism predominates among ethnic minority groups, local authorities actively encouraged those groups to adopt Buddhism and abandon their beliefs in magic and spirits.

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Page last modified: 03-06-2012 18:54:43 ZULU