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Comment: A missionary message of misery

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.

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