As an expanding number of religions have been established in Cambodia, the personal decision one must make as to what religion to believe in, or if to follow religion at all, is becoming increasingly difficult. Because they have only been around for a few years in the Kingdom, many people do not even know what religions such as Christianity teach.
Even though Christianity has far less followers than Buddhism in Cambodia, the number of Cambodians converting to Christianity has grown quite quickly in the Kingdom thanks to the work of its many missionaries. The Mormon church is one of many sects of Christianity that has found its place among a niche population of Cambodians.
Mormonism, also called the Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints, is a fairly young religion that was founded by Joseph Smith in the United States around 1830 during a time of great religious fervor. According to Mormon beliefs, Joseph Smith asked God which religion was the true religion that he should follow? Eventually, Joseph Smith was guided by God to believe in Mormonism as a restoration of what he considered to be the true Christian church. This type of story, where a human has a private interaction with a higher being, is part of the story of many religions.
The Cambodian government officially recognised the Mormon church on February 26, 1994, largely due to the efforts of Vichit Ith, who served from 1993 to 1997 as an economic adviser to the prime minister.
“Mormonism spreads primarily through its worldwide missionary efforts – good, young unmarried Mormon men are required to do two years’ missionary service, and a half of a year for women,” said Elder Miles, a Mormon missionary.
“The current estimates for the number of Mormons in Cambodia is 7,000 to 8,000,” said Thoang Chantha, president of the Phnom Penh north district of the church. “There are four main centres, three in Phnom Penh and one in Kampong Cham. There are also 24 sub-offices in the provinces.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints provides education to its members in subjects such as English and Korean, as well as computer skills. “Before, I did not believe in the Mormon faith. I was always going for a walk and not even thinking about my studies. I didn’t know how to do administrative work, but after I became a Mormon, I learned a lot from the branch manager and now I am working more and focusing on my studies,” said Kong Channak, who joined the Mormon church in March of 2009.
Christianity has been spread around Asia and the world by missionaries for centuries. Places such as the Phillipines, South Korea and many countries in Africa have millions of believers.
Christianity, which comprises the many religions that believe in Jesus Christ as their savior, began in Jerusalem with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish boy who was born in a small corner of the Roman empire. It is said that his mother was a virgin, whose immaculate conception was the work of God. Over two thousand years after Christ was born, Christianity now has between 1.5 billion and 2.2 billion adherents worldwide. Christians represent more than a quarter of the world’s population, making it the world’s largest religion.
Christianity came late to Cambodia. The first Protestant missionary arrived in 1923, translated the New Testament into Khmer by 1933 and published the whole Bible in 1953. By the 1970s there were about 20,000 Christians in the country.
The number of Christians in Cambodia has been on the rise for the past few decades, and there are plans to spread the religion further across Cambodia. These works are being done by a number of evangelical groups and “Christian crusaders”, who come to Cambodia not only to convert people to their religion but also to undertake social welfare projects.
To widely disseminate the Christian faith, these groups, largely composed of volunteers, have to travel from place to place to meet with locals. Muy Seang Heng, who is a daycare provider at a Christian church in Phnom Penh, said that the groups only talk to people about Christianity outside their house or when they are in public places.
“Furthermore, church groups do not use money, materials and other means to convince people to convert to Christianity,” said Kim Hee-sun, a 26-year-old Korean Bible teacher at Bible Baptist Church in Phnom Penh.
Some Cambodians who have joined the church say they have seen many benefits. “When we believe in God and come to the church, we feel very happy and better from any illness because God helps us, and we can meet many friends and have a party and trips prepared by the church. We are also offered English classes,” said Him Many, a 29-year-old Christian who attends the Phnom Penh Thmei Church.