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Foreign funds help pilgrims



all Muslims, 29-year-old Nos Sles of Phnom Penh faces in the direction of Mecca each

time he kneels to pray. But this year, thanks to a sponsorship from a religious organization,

Sles and 54 other Cambodians traveled thousands of kilometers to pray in person at

Islam's holiest city as part of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

"Everyone wants to see it," said Sles, a Cham Muslim and the coordinator

of the NGO Cambodian Muslim Youth Coordination Committee in Phnom Penh. "They

pray that they will be able to perform the Hajj, that they can go to Mecca and see

the Haram Mosque. I had the opportunity to see it."

Sles and his group-including eight women-received funding from Manar al-Islam, a

United Arab Emirates-based NGO, to join more than 2 million other Muslims in the

journey. According to Sles, this year was the first year that the UAE has provided

financial support to foreign Muslims to participate in the Hajj. Sles added that,

in the past, the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia provided support, but two years ago

this assistance stopped.

Bjorn Blengsli, a Norwegian anthropologist studying Islamic education among Cham

Muslims, told the Post that foreign sponsorship is common in Cambodia.

"Most people who go on Hajj from Cambodia have sponsors from abroad, usually

from Arab countries or Malaysia," Blengsli said. "A few go by their own

expense, but most go on scholarship."

Every Muslim is obligated to perform the Hajj at least once in his or her lifetime,

provided the individual is physically and financially able. During the years of civil

war in Cambodia, Muslim traditions were prohibited and pilgrimages stopped. Reflecting

the divisions that emerged in Cambodian society as a whole, the Cham community split

into pro- and anti-communist factions. Many Cham faced persecution from the Khmer

Rouge. After 1979, the People's Republic of Kampuchea allowed Islamic practices to

return, and support for Islamic teaching, mosque building, and sending Cambodians

abroad to study and Hajj began to come in from overseas, especially Malaysia. Sles

believes that Cambodians resumed undertaking the Hajj after 1993.

Sles' 28-day trip began on December 26, 2005. He and the other Cambodians went to

Bangkok, where they were joined by 34 Muslims from Vietnam and nine from Thailand

before flying to Dubai, UAE.

Although they were from neighboring countries, they had never had the opportunity

to meet Muslims beyond their own borders.

"We compared our situation. We asked questions about each other's communities:

How many Muslims are there? What problems do you have?" said Sles. "Because

of our shared religion, we had so much in common. We were like a big family."

Sles said the experience made him realize the benefits of being Muslim in Cambodia,

where the government allows them to practice Islam freely. He compared the situation

to Vietnam, where, he said, Chams face discrimination. Through his organization,

Sles is working to promote peace by increasing understanding among Cambodian youth

about Islam.

"Sometimes, kids see us praying and they think, 'Oh, they kiss the mat.' We

explain, 'We're not kissing the mat; this is how we pray,'" he said.

From Dubai, the group traveled by bus for two days before arriving in Saudi Arabia.

"Saudi Arabia didn't have any trees or water. The mountains were just bare rock.

I was so surprised that people could live in this country," said Sles. "But

then I thought about the stories in the Quran about Mohammad and Mecca. Then I realized

that people can live here because Allah gives them what they need to survive."

When the group arrived in Mecca they lodged in a hotel and mingled with pilgrims

from all over the world. They also met Cambodian Muslims living in the US and Canada.

"There were so many people. It seemed such a small place for all of them,"

he said. "If I wanted to go to the mosque for afternoon prayer, I would have

to go two hours early to get a place to sit inside. Otherwise, I would have to pray

in the street. The mosque is very big, but compared to the number of people it's

not so big."

He says that having the opportunity to perform the Hajj, which includes circling

the Kabbah, the black cube-shaped shrine in the Haram Mosque, helped him to better

understand the history of Islam. Because there is no Khmer translation of the Quran,

much of his knowledge has come from religious teachers, including some from abroad-a

phenomenon that Blingsli says has increased since the 1990s.

"Now we learn things we didn't know before. I knew the steps of the Hajj, but

not the detail of what to recite and when," he said.

Since returning to Cambodia on January 22, Sles said he has been busy meeting with

members of his community who want to hear about his trip. Although he doesn't have

additional responsibilities, he explained that he is now extra careful to set a good


"People believe if we perform the Hajj we stop doing bad things," he said.

"All the bad things we've done we ask Allah to forgive in Mecca and we promise

not to do again what He prohibited. I have to keep myself from doing bad things."

At 29, Sles is young for a hajji. He said most of the pilgrims are old and that some,

taxed by the rigors of the Hajj and unaccustomed to the Arabian sun, rely on help

from younger people. "My father could not do the Hajj. Now he is very old and

is no longer able," he said. "It was a good chance for me."



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