I was gardening out the back of my house in Sihanoukville when my ears were assailed
by what sounded like a campaigning politician roaming the streets haranguing citizens
through a loud-hailer.
I walked out to the street to see the fun and met my security guard coming the other
way with a pamphlet he had just been given. It was a lurid publication the size of
four pages of the Post: - all glowing portrayals of Heaven and Hell with a splattering
of biblical texts in Khmer.
Moving slowly along the street was a natty white SUV with speakers on top playing
a recorded message. The driver, a Cambodian, was handing the pamphlets out his window.
I tried to ask him which particular brand of Christianity he represented, but he
ignored me, wound the window up, and drove off, his loudspeakers still blaring.
When parts of the tract had been translated, it was apparent that the biblical quotations
threatened people with the hellfire portrayed in the paintings if they failed to
abandon Buddhism and convert to the pamphleteers' version of Christianity.
Prominent among the biblical texts is a sentence from the Epistle to the Romans that
could be interpreted as a condemnation of images of the Buddha:
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God
for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.
The pamphlet purported to be published by the Cambodia-Japan Bible Distribution League,
P O Box 1663, Phnom Penh.
In January 2003 a regulation, issued by Chea Savoeun, then Minister of Cults and
Religion, proscribed the distribution of leaflets or display of posters in public
places without permission of the authorities, and specifically prohibits Christians
from knocking on doors and saying "The Lord is coming."
Post reporter Cheang Sokha spoke to Mao Thon, Chief of the Ministry of Cults and
Religion office in Sihanoukville, who said his office had received no application
for door-to-door missionary work, the pamphleteer in my street was in breach of the
government regulation, and if caught would be summoned for education.
"They cannot promote their religion on the street like an election campaign,"
he said. "It is wrong. They can do it inside their own place, or hire a building
- but not to look down on other religions."
Which leaves me wondering just how much license missionaries should have in their
endeavors to coax Cambodians away from Buddhism to a Western religion.
In Sri Lanka, where like Cambodia most of the population is Theravada Buddhist, Parliament
is currently considering a Bill that will place severe restrictions on proselytizing.
The Sri Lanka Bill is modeled on a law passed by the state government of Tamil Nadu
in India in October 2002.
The Tamil Nadu law makes it an offence punishable by three years' imprisonment to
convert a person from one religion to another by "force, fraud, or allurement".
The law defines "allurement" as any material reward or enticement. More
significantly, "force" is deemed to include any threat of Divine Displeasure
if the subject does not convert.
It would be unfortunate if Cambodia resorted to legislation that restricted freedom
of speech. But on the other hand, perhaps it is time for missionaries to show respect
for local culture, and in particular for a religion five centuries older than Christianity.
Missionaries have done, and continue to do, essential work in education, health care,
and assistance for the poor that the Cambodian government is presently unable to
do by itself. But the activities of some Christian missions have about them a strong
whiff of cultural imperialism.