Members of mostly Nigerian church say government discrimination makes it hard for them to obtain or extend visas, after armed police entered a church and detained congregants.
AFRICAN churchgoers detained during a police raid Sunday on the Christ Embassy, a Phnom Penh house of worship, condemned the action as "racist" on Tuesday.
"We're not illegal here," Pastor Prince Lenee Lahben said.
"The police were pushing people into cars and bullying people as if we were criminals, as we were nobody.... This is pure racism."
After receiving a noise complaint from the community in Tuol Svay Prey commune, Chamkarmon district, about 25 armed police sealed off the
road and entered the church at around 11am, just as Lahben was taking the pulpit, three church members who were present told the Post.
In the last year, Christ Embassy had sealed off all windows in the church to minimise sound carrying into the neighbourhood, Lahben said.
In the church, the authorities demanded to the see everyone's passport and visa, but none of the church members had brought them, they said.
The police are good people, but there is a lack of understanding.
After forcibly removing the Cambodians from the premises, police detained the congregation for three to five hours until family or friends could bring their documents to them, according to Lahben.
Fifteen churchgoers who have not been able to produce a passport and valid visa remain in custody at the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Station.
If they cannot produce documentation in the next five days, they will be deported, Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Mom Sitha said.
Deputy Municipal Police Chief Hy Pru said the police had processed 57 foreigners from the Christ Embassy, 30 of whom were released on the Sunday. Hy Pru declined to elaborate further on the operation.
The police sting on a house of worship, followed by the detention of legal residents, angered many in Cambodia's African community.
"It's embarrassing that everybody was held hostage," said Gabriel Ken Gadaffi, the president of the Nigerian Community Association in Cambodia and a freelance sports writer for the Post.
Gadaffi blamed discriminatory policies for forcing many Nigerians into overstaying their visas, while others said that officials refuse to renew legitimate visas.
"The immigration officials keep assuring me that they don't want to discriminate, but their actions say otherwise," Gadaffi said.
"If this police action is strictly an immigration issue, then they have to deal with it at arrival into the country."
One member of the Christ Embassy Church told the Post from the police station that he did not intend to overstay his visa, but the authorities had refused to extend it.
"I was fighting to renew my visa before it happened," said Frank, 50, declining to give his family name. "My original visa was for six days. I went to renew it but they would not and didn't say why. Later, they said it would cost US$500."
Immigration officials say that "suspicious" people, including those from some African nations, are issued visas for seven days or less.
Despite Frank's anger that the police invaded a house of worship, he said he respects the police and that they have treated the church members at the police station well.
"The police are good people," Frank said, "but there is a lack of understanding. I do not blame them."
Lahben said that although many in his congregation no longer feel safe at church, he would hold services as normal.
This week, he said he would preach about a special topic to help his church move forward after Sunday's ordeal: forgiveness.