Officials Threaten Pastors in Laos Imprisoned for Praying for Healing

March 12, 2015

Lao Christians pray for healing.

Five church leaders in Laos have been sentenced to prison as “illegal doctors” for praying for healing for a woman who later died. They received another legal blow when health officials on Feb. 27 agreed with an inexplicable court ruling that calling on God to heal violates Laos´ Health Care Law.

A rights advocate has helped the pastors file an appeal in the bizarre case, which he acknowledges has little chance of succeeding against a communist government determined to limit the spread of Christianity. Local authorities have threatened to extend the nine-month sentences for the five pastors if they do not withdraw the appeal.

“Our hearts are extremely heavy to see our five Lao pastors in prison for calling on God for His healing for a dying woman,” said the advocate for Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF). “Now that they have submitted an appeal, police and other local authorities are threatening to increase the prison sentence from nine months to several years if they don´t withdraw the appeal.”

The People´s Court of Savannakhet Province on Feb. 12 sentenced the five Christians to nine months in prison and a fine of 500,000 kips (US$62) each. In addition, the defendants are to jointly pay 20 million kips (US$2,448) in emotional damages and funeral costs to the family of the deceased.

The woman who died, identified only as Chansee (also known as Chan), had been ill for two years with an unknown condition. Various kinds of healers and doctors in Saisomboon village, Atsaphangthong District, had treated her without success.

Without proving that the five Christians had malicious intent or that their prayer was the cause of death, the court has abused the law, said the HRWLRF advocate, whose name is withheld for security reasons.

“Facts needed to be brought out in court that the arrest and conviction was to stop the Christians from spreading the Christian faith,” he said in a report by Morning Star News on Feb. 19.

Held in stocks after their arrest in June 2014, the Christians – female pastor Kaithong Khounphaisane and four leaders of other churches identified in court records as Phouphet, Muk, Hatsady and Thiang – are now imprisoned at Savannakhet Provincial Prison.

After putting her faith in Christ, Chansee on June 19, 2014 requested prayer from the Christian leaders, who prayed for her for two days. When her condition did not improve, the Christians brought her to a hospital in Utumphone District, where a licensed doctor treated her.

She requested discharge from the hospital on June 21 so she could die at home. By the time those driving her home arrived, she had died, Morning Star News reported, citing court records.

By ruling that praying for the sick for healing constitutes an act considered medical practice that requires a license from the Ministry of Health, the People´s Court wrongly found the five Christians guilty of performing medical profession without license, the HRWLRF advocate said.

“In the whole process of investigation and court trial, the five Christians were not given the chance to have a lawyer to represent their case,” he told Morning Star News.

Two of Chansee´s children, identified as Poung and Khay, on June 24 had petitioned the court for the defendants to pay the family 100 million kips (US$12,238) in order to compensate for the death of their mother. On Jan. 26, two other children, identified as Khone and Ham, filed a statement saying that Kaithong had done everything possible to help their mother and that they had no intention of bringing charges against her.

The court sentenced the pastors to pay the family 15 million kips (US$1,836) in emotional damages and 5 million kips (US$612) for funeral expenses, a total of US$2,448.

“Our five pastors who are paying for their faith physically and mentally along with their families have submitted an appeal to Court of Appeal in Champasak Province on Friday, March 6,” the advocate said. “It is a very slim chance that the Court of Appeal will overturn the Savannakhet Court´s verdict. However, appealing the case will be the only option they have to fight for the right and freedom to pray to God for His healing when faced with different physical problems or illness.”

Court in Savannakhet Province, Laos. (HRWLRF)

The HRWLRF holds that the Feb. 27 determination by the State Inspection Authority and the Savannakhet Provincial Health Department that praying for the sick violates articles 41 and 42 of the Health Care Law contravenes Laos´ constitution and laws.

“While the Lao Constitution stipulates that ‘the state respects and protects all lawful activities of the Buddhists and of other religious followers´ (Article 9), these two Lao government agencies are essentially stating that praying for the sick for the purpose of healing is ‘unlawful activity’ and, therefore, Lao citizens cannot appeal to the constitution for protection,” the advocate said.

Article 30 of the constitution states that Lao citizens have the right and freedom to believe or not believe in religions, he noted, and that praying for the sick to be healed by the intervention of a supernatural power is at the core of one´s religious belief.

The decision of the Lao government agencies also contravenes the right to pray as guaranteed by Article 11 of the Decree on Management and Protection of Religious Activities in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Prime Minister´s Office No. 92/PM, he said. Moreover, the decision goes against the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is binding on the Lao government.

Article 18 (1) of the Covenant stipulates, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

The advocate acknowledged that Article 18 (3) of the Covenant states that religious freedoms may be “subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” But he said it would be hard to prove “that the act of praying for the sick, upon the request of the sick, without the use of medicine or material remedy would bring direct harm to the sick.”

The HRWLRF is appealing to the Lao government to review the decision of the State Inspection Authority and Savannakhet Provincial Health Department, respect the Lao constitution and laws, and abide by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The group is appealing for the immediate release of the five Christians.

“Stand with us and with these five brothers/sisters in their suffering, as well as their families,” the advocate said. “The Court of Appeal will have 45 days to decide whether to uphold or overturn the Savannakhet Court´s verdict. Also, pray for me. It has been very mentally and physically taxing to write the legal defense to appeal this case for the five.”