A Christian pastor imprisoned in the Southeast Asian country of Laos for refusing to halt worship services and renounce his faith has been released after one year in detention.
According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), Pastor Sithon Thippavong, 35, was freed on April 9, three days after the Provincial People’s Court convicted him on charges of “disrupting unity” and “creating disorder.”
“He was sentenced to one year in jail and fined a total of 4 million kip (about $426), with 2 million kip paid for each charge,” an official from the provincial prosecutor’s office told RFA. “He has already served a little more than one year in jail, so he has been released.”
A member of Sithon’s church said that he is now traveling back to his home in Xonnaboury district’s Kaleum-Vangkae village.
“We prayed for Pastor Sithon for more than a year now,” another Lao Christian 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,” he added. “But now he’ll be very happy to be able to serve God again.”
Sithon, who has pastored in the Xonnaboury district since 2011, was arrested on March 15, 2020, for organizing religious services without permission from government authorities.
Although Laos passed a law in 2019 to allow Christians to freely worship, in practice, many churches are still subject to harassment and discrimination, says International Christian Concern.
RFA reports that on the day of his arrest, Sithon was preparing to conduct a worship service when seven police officers arrived and demanded that the pastor cancel the service and sign a document renouncing his Christian faith.
When Sithon refused, he was taken into custody, with his family never formally informed of his arrest or the charges made against him.
Bounthone Chanthalavong-Weise, president of the German-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos, told RFA in March that his group had reported Sithon’s detention and other human rights violations to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“We have asked that agency to pressure the Lao government to release the pastor,” Chanthalavong-Weise said at the time.
Persecution watchdog agency Open Doors USA ranks Laos as No. 22 on its list of 50 countries where it’s most difficult to be a Christian.
“Pastor Thippavong’s release is an answer to prayers worldwide,” said U.S.-based religious freedom group Vision Beyond Borders in an email to RFA. “We are thankful for his release and that he is at home with this family.”
Above: An old Christian church in Pakse, Laos.
Photo: Sorachar Tangjitjaroen /Alamy Stock Photo