Balancing Religious Freedom in a One-Party Socialist State
Visiting countries with recent histories of violence, dictatorships and war, I watch in amazement as people continue to live in hope even with the continuing residue of single-party governments and dominant religions or atheism. These are complex realities, which if described to an outside world without extensive explanation, might lead to a distortion. And more importantly, creating hardship for those in ministry on the ground.
In my brief time as global ambassador, I’ve learned to test what I say before it goes public. My role, in part, is to discern the footprints of the Spirit, not to be an investigative reporter. Those who know more about what is going on than what I note, will understand often discretion conditions candor.
Now to my Dispatch on Laos.
The Laos Peoples Democratic Republic is one of five remaining socialist states run by a single party with a distinctly communist heritage and ruling ideology: China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea. A country, the size of Minnesota, squeezed in between Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), China and Cambodia, is part of South East Asia.
What makes this country one-of-a-kind for Evangelicals is that its Protestant community is grouped by law under one denomination called the Laos Evangelical Church. It was formed in 1956 and in 1960 given legal status by the previous government. From 1975 to 1990 it had little outside contact, as Laos remained a “closed” country. In 1990 that changed and the LEC was given what has up to now been a proprietorship for all Protestant denominations.
The government then permitted churches to form: the Roman Catholics, the Seven Day Adventist (about 1000 members) and the Laos Evangelical Church (LEC) – which estimates its has 100,000 church members. The government requires churches to be registered under one of these three bodies.
Protestant ministries began late in the 19th Century with missionaries, including The Christian and Missionary Alliance, mainly from North America who came in the 1920s. During the communist rule from 1975 to 1990 Christian activity was greatly curtailed. Decree #92 passed in 2002 comprises what religious groups can and can’t do. Under this the LEC has remarkable influence.
What makes this country unique is that an Evangelical group — the LEC — has been given, from a socialist, one-party government the sole right to represent the Protestant world. Thus all Protestant churches — Methodist, Anglican/Episcopal, Baptist, Assemblies of God/Pentecostal, Lutheran, etc. — come under their banner and leadership. The Methodist Church recently appealed to the government for their own denomination but was refused. To add to its many layers of role, influence and definition, the LEC recently joined the World Council of Churches.
It is rather extraordinary that a government with a communist history gives official recognition to an Evangelical group with authority to plant and operate churches, and continues in its defined freedom. The LEC president and his associates, lobby on behalf of new church plants, reported to me that they speak on matters of religious repression, providing political cover and insuring a political tie to the all- important Party apparatus. Its significance was made even plainer when I learned the LEC is a red stamp organization, which in essence makes it something akin to a department of the government, not unlike the Council of Churches in China.
As well, there seemed respect and recognition of the president’s — Rev Kamphone — spiritual leadership in negotiating the shoals of an Evangelical church community on such a political sea. This is something quite out of the ordinary. Those concerned with the government’s allowance of only a single Protestant denomination, were somewhat muted by the admiration and respect of others, shown for the work of the LEC.
While this system has its own inherent weaknesses, many house churches often find their way into relationship with the LEC because of the political covering it offers. Living within one of the five last surviving communist countries, the church structure is unparalleled.
A final word: One evening, over dinner, Lily and I heard the story of a woman, very well educated, talk about her passion to provide education in some of the most primitive of villages. Living there alone, in conditions in which most of us wouldn’t spend a night, her anticipation of this project was riveting. We hear story after story of men, women, young people, young couples with so much to gain by staying home, hear the Lord’s call and leave home for this and other lands. Each tells a different story. But as we left our dinner table that night, we agreed we had been sitting on holy ground. I’ve seen the best of our religious personnel over the years, but I would be remiss if I didn’t end this Dispatch with letting you know that the Spirit is still picking out some of the finest. The courage and seeming reckless faith of these heroes is beyond what most of us experience in a lifetime.
So why end my Laos Dispatch this way?
I want you to see the work the Lord is doing worldwide. He is using new and surprising approaches. He is calling out the willing. You and I may not be those who go. But let’s find a few who do. Make them our daily focus of prayer. Be generous. Support them before they have to ask. Discover that investing in their lives is personally life changing.
We will be changed, as they become our means of being Christ to the world.
Brian C. Stiller, Global Ambassador
The World Evangelical Alliance