Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia. It occupies an area of 237,955 square km in the Indochinese Peninsula and has an estimated population of 6,758,353 individuals.
Buddhism is the dominant religion in Laos. More specifically, 64.7% of the country’s population practice Theravada Buddhism, and most of the country’s Buddhists are ethnic Lao. Christians account for only 1.7% of the population, while the remaining 31.5% of the population practice other faiths including traditional indigenous religions. This segment of the population is composed of at least 48 ethnic minority communities that have distinct cultures and beliefs. A very small percentage of Laotians are atheists or agnostics.
The Largest Religion in Laos
Mon Buddhist monks introduced Buddhism in Laos in the 8th century. The indigenous people of the region were quick to adopt the religion, and by the 14th century Buddhism was widely practiced in Laos. Patronage by the Laotian kings further encouraged the spread of the religion among the masses in the region, and there are now nearly 5,000 Buddhist temples throughout Laos. Most Buddhist Laotian men prefer to dedicate a part of their lives as monks in the temples. The Luang stupa is the country’s most sacred monument dedicated to Buddhism. Nearly every lowland village in Laos has at least one wat, which serves as the identity of the village and a hub of cultural and religious activities. The design and architecture of these wats reflect the prosperity of a village since they are usually built using monetary contributions from villagers. Although most of the nation’s Buddhists adhere to the Theravada school of Buddhism, a small community of Mahayana Buddhists also exists. This community is primarily composed of ethnic Chinese or ethnic Vietnamese Buddhists.
Laotian Folk Religion
Laotian folk religion refers to a number of ethnic beliefs and customs of several ethnic minority communities, both indigenous and foreign, living in Laos. Such religions are polytheistic in nature. Shamans are also an integral part of such religions. Indigenous adherents of folk religion in Laos mainly include Laotians from the Lao Theung and Lao Sung ethnic groups. Many other ethnic groups living in the country, like the Tibeto-Burmans, Mon-Khmer people, and the Khmu, also engage in traditional religious practices. The influence of indigenous religious beliefs can also be observed in the type of Buddhism practiced in Laos.
Christianity in Laos
Christianity has a very small percentage of adherents in Laos. The Protestant Church and the Roman Catholic Church are the largest of the recognized Christian denominations active in Laos. There are about 100,000 Protestant Christians in Laos, and Protestantism is one of the country's most rapidly growing religions. The Catholic Church in Laos includes about 45,000 members, most of whom are ethnic Vietnamese.
Freedom of Religion in Laos
The constitution of Laos provides for the freedom of religion. However, in practice the government strictly monitors religion in the country. Foreigners are not allowed to proselytize Laotians, and religious bodies need to register their organizations with the government in order to operate in the country.