Laos is entirely landlocked on the southern Asia peninsula. Myanmar and China lie to the north, with Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west.
Laos was first united under one government in the fourteenth century. In 1713 internal conflict led to the division of the country into three kingdoms, leaving the country vulnerable to aggression. After a long struggle to maintain independence, Laos became a French colony in 1893. Attempts were made to regain independence following the formation of the Communist Party of Indochina. This party led groups in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in their struggles for self-determination. Laos became a constitutional monarchy in 1947, and in 1949 it was granted limited self-government within the French Union. Lao independence was recognized by the Geneva Agreement on Indochina in 1954. Despite this agreement the Laotian government remained unstable for years.
Laos is one of the least developed countries in southeast Asia. Currently, there are no railroads and just over 2'000km of paved highways. This lack of infrastructure makes disaster relief difficult, particularly as flooding is common.
Christianity in Laos began with Italian Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century. All the major Catholic mission centres are located on the border with Thailand. Beginning in 1950, the Catholic mission shifted its focus to mountain peoples. The first Protestant missionaries - Swiss Brethern who translated the Bible into the vernacular - arrived in 1902. Overseas Missionary Fellowship workers strengthened their work after 1957. Of the Protestant groups, the most successful is the Gospel Church of Laos. During the 1970s the communist government took over all Catholic schools, orphanages, residences and churches, and eliminated religious education. All foreign missionaries were forced to leave. Though the current law allows freedom of religion, the government controls all public meetings and requires that they be registered.