Religion in Laos

Buddhist temple in Vientiane, Laos
Buddhist temple in Vientiane, Laos.

Tuomas Lehtinen / Getty Images

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, or Laos, officially recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith. Of these four, Buddhism is the largest; approximately 64.7% of Lao people are Buddhist.

The constitution of Laos protects the right of religious freedom, though in practice the government maintains strict control over religious activities. All religious organizations are required to register with the Ministry of Home Affairs. The ministry requires any religiously affiliated organization to obtain approval for all events and activities, including Christmas and Easter Christian services, and it also manages the printing and publication of religious literature.

Key Takeaways: Laos Religion

  • The government of Laos officially recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith. 
  • About 64.7% of the population of Laos practices Theravada Buddhism, making it the most common religion in the country.
  • The remainder of the population identify with Christianism (1.7%); Islam, the Baha’i Faith, Confucianism, Taoism, and folk religion (2.1%); and 31.4% identify as having no religion.
  • Christians in Laos are strictly monitored, and frequent reports indicate fierce persecution, particularly in rural communities. 
  • Though Islam is recognized as an official religion, Laos has one of the smallest populations of Muslims in southeast Asia, numbering less than 800.

Buddhism in Laos 

Buddhism was originally introduced in Laos by way of traveling Burmese monks during the eighth century, notably later than it was introduced to neighboring countries like Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma). The monks practiced Theravada Buddhism, and by the 14th century, it was the most common religion in Laos.

Buddhism in Laos is practiced mostly by the ethnically Lao people who make up the majority in the country. All people, particularly those in rural communities, are encouraged to actively participate in religious life. Every Buddhist man is expected to spend several months living as a monk, and elderly, widowed women often become bhiksuni, or Buddhist nuns.

Buddhist groups in Laos experience more religious freedom from the government than other religious groups. However, restrictions on all religious communities increased in 2016, when the government passed a decree (Decree 315) intended to set the principles and requirements of Laos' religion. For example, all Buddhist groups are required to register with the Ministry of Home Affairs, whereas previously the registration requirement was less applicable for Buddhists. Additionally, Buddhist monks must now carry identification cards at all times, though this is more lenient than the policy toward other religious clergies who are required to carry certification of training.

Wat Pha That Luang, The Golden Temple, Laos
Pha That Luang is a gold covered large Buddhist stupa in the centre of Vientiane, Laos. Since its initial establishment suggested to be in the 3rd century, the stupa has undergone several reconstructions until the 1930s due to foreign invasions to the area. It is generally regarded as the most important national monument in Laos and a national symbol. Igor Bilic / Getty Images

Though Decree 315 increased regulations on religious groups in Laos, it does include a clause that permits the government to continue to foster a strong association with Buddhism, which it views as a cornerstone of Lao cultural identity. 

Christianity in Laos 

Christianity in Laos is organized into three official branches: Roman Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, and the Lao Evangelical Church, or LEC. As all religious organizations are required to register within these groups, the LEC is the catch-all for unrecognized Christian organizations other than Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists.

The origins of Christianity in Laos are rooted in the spice trade, which brought merchants and Jesuit monks to the frontiers of Laos by way of Vietnam in the 1630s, though it took two centuries for Christianity to gain official entrance into the country. The Paris Foreign Missions Society—a Catholic organization—established the first Christian church in Laos in 1878, followed by Presbyterian churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Protestantism was not a presence in the country until the mid-20th century.

Apostolic vicar of Paksé Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun from Laos
Apostolic vicar of Paksé Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun from Laos walks after kneeling before Pope Francis to pledge allegiance and become cardinal during a consistory for the creation of five new cardinals on June 28, 2017 at St Peter's basilica in Vatican. ALBERTO PIZZOLI / Getty Images

Christianity is a minority religion in Laos, practiced by only 1.7% of the population, most of whom are ethnic minorities. All Christian organizations are closely monitored. Though protected under the constitution, there are frequent reports of arrest, detention, and exile of practicing Christians, particularly in rural communities.

Islam in Laos 

Though recognized as an official religion, Islam in Laos is practiced by less than 0.01% of the population. Totaling less than 800 people, Laos has one of the lowest Muslim populations in Southeast Asia. Islam didn’t arrive in Laos in significant capacity until the 20th century, when Muslims from India immigrated to the French colony. Later in the century, Muslims migrated from Pakistan, bringing the total number of Muslims to around 7,000. However, the civil war in Laos forced mass migration of Muslims out of the country.

Most of the Muslims currently living in Laos are ethnically Khmer, originating from Cambodia. During the Khmer Rouge, Muslim Cambodians fled their country, seeking refuge from religious persecution in neighboring countries like Laos.

Baha’i Faith, Adopted Faiths, and Indigenous Religions 

Less than 3% of the population of Laos practices Baha’i Faith, folk religion, animism, Confucianism, or Taoism, but they do have a noticeable presence within the country. Confucianism and Taoism are practiced almost exclusively by the ethnically Chinese, often in combination with Buddhism. As Laos was once part of the ancient Khmer Empire, remains of Hindu temples can be found across the country.

Baha’i Faith in Laos

The Baha’i Faith, originating from Persia, is the belief in the manifestation of a monotheistic god in the founders of major world religions, including Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad. Religious activity focuses on the unity, equality, and importance of all people and religions. The Baha’i Faith was first recognized in Laos during the 1950s, and since then, the Baha’i have been involved in socio-economic development and gender equality projects throughout the country.

Folk Religion in Laos

Also known as Tai folk religion and Satsana Phi, Lao folk religion is practiced in both Thailand and Laos. It is an animistic, polytheistic set of beliefs based in veneration, worship, and gratitude of different types of deities, which tend to be symbolic of ancestors, natural phenomena, earthly elements, geographical features, and man-made constructions. Satsana Phi religious leaders are specially trained shamans, called mophi. Elements of Lao folk religion are practiced by Buddhist groups, as the two faiths can easily coexist.

Sources

  • Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Laos. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 2019. 
  • Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook: Laos. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2019.
  • Osborne, Milton E. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History. 11th ed., Allen & Unwin, 2013.
  • Sikand, Yoginder. “Muslims in Laos: Hidden Beyond the Mekong.” Qantara.de, Deutsche Welle, 14 Oct. 2008.
  • Somers Heidhues, Mary. Southeast Asia: A Concise History. Thames & Hudson, 2000.