BANGKOK (AP) — Three American volunteers for a U.S.-based Christian evangelical organization have been detained in the Southeast Asian nation of Laos, the group said.
Vision Beyond Borders, based in Casper, Wyoming, said in a statement late Friday that the three, whom it identified only by the names Wayne, Autumn and Joseph, were detained by police while visiting villages in the northwestern province of Luang Namtha.
Eric Blievernicht, the missionary group's operations manager, said in an email Saturday that the three carried Gospel tracts and MP3 players with Scripture and other Christian material to share with villagers.
Laotian authorities could not immediately be contacted on Saturday, as celebrations of the extended traditional New Year's holiday began. An emailed inquiry to the U.S. Embassy in Laos was not immediately answered.
Christians in Laos, especially those carrying out proselytizing work, face pressure from two quarters. The country's rigid old-style communist government is suspicious of outsiders and seeks to regulate all religions. The mostly Buddhist country's animist community, usually found in rural areas, also is often hostile.
The current situation of the three volunteers was unclear. The website of the U.S.-government funded Radio Free Asia cited an unnamed Luang Namtha police official saying that the three had been arrested but were not detained.
"What we know about these three individuals is that they are not detained," it quoted him saying. "Their passports have just been confiscated."
The RFA website also quoted an unnamed U.S. State Department official as saying: "We can confirm the temporary detention and subsequent release of three U.S. citizens in Luang Namtha, Laos. We take seriously our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are providing all appropriate consular services."
The statement from Vision Beyond Borders said the three volunteers "were not in any legitimate sense a threat to the people or government of Laos; rather theirs was a mission of love and concern for people who might otherwise never hear of God's love for them."
Vision Beyond Borders is one of a number of missionary groups that do semi-covert missionary work in countries whose governments are often hostile to Christianity, and are best known for actions like smuggling Bibles into places such as China.
The group says it also helps support poor and orphaned children, provides safe houses for women who have escaped sex trafficking, and has sent refugee relief supplies to the Middle East.
The U.S. State Department's 2017 International Religious Freedom Report said about Laos that "Reports continued of authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting, detaining, and exiling followers of minority religions, particularly Christians."
The U.K.-based religious freedom group Christian Solidarity Worldwide expressed concern in 2012 about "a pattern of religious oppression in Luang Namtha province," saying Christians in at least 15 villages there reported cases of harassment by the authorities. Reports of harassment and violence have come from other parts of Laos as well over a period of years.
Luang Namtha is best known as a waystation for backpackers travelling between Laos and China.