Religion in Laos
The predominant religion of Laos is Theravada Buddhism. Buddhism was the state religion of the prerepublic kingdom of Laos, and the organization of the community of monks and novices, the clergy (sangha), paralleled the political hierarchy. Buddhists—largely lowland Lao—account for about half the country’s people. Some two-fifths of the population, primarily the Lao Theung and Lao Soung groups, follow non-Buddhist local religions. Buddhism and local religion are not necessarily mutually exclusive, however; there is both a syncretic practice of and a general tolerance for local religious traditions within the broader Buddhist community.
Similarly, some of the upland peoples, especially those who have migrated from southern China, mix Confucian ideas with Buddhism and local religions. The Vietnamese, who live both in the cities and in the northeastern rural areas, practice a mixture of Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism.
Other smaller religious communities include Christians, Muslims, and followers of the Bahāʾī faith. Although the country’s constitution provides for freedom of religion in theory, the government restricts this right in practice, particularly with respect to the minority religions. Since some heavy-handed attempts in the aftermath of 1975 to take over the sangha, which was perceived as a rival grassroots organization, and the subsequent flight of many monks abroad, the government has treaded carefully. The regime has patronized a revival of Buddhist culture and merit making and has also tolerated the practice of many unique religious traditions that it earlier had publicly discouraged as “superstitious.”