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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Free speech and missions

Free speech and missions

I was disappointed that a journalist like John Trezise, a member of a profession

that claims to be the guardian of free speech rights, can manage only a mild "unfortunate"

when he contemplates the possibility of Cambodia's adopting an anti-free speech law

such as the anti-proselytizing law in Tamil Nadu, India ("A missionary message

of misery" Phnom Penh Post, August 13, 2004). Unfortunate? How about heavy handed?

paternalistic? an intolerable breach of human rights? Though he came short of advocating

such a law himself, he also came well short of condemning it.

Free countries like the one Trezise grew up in tolerate all kinds of nonsensical

speech, even speech that questions the very cultural foundations of those societies.

Trezise has been bombarded since childhood with written and spoken messages attacking

the core beliefs of his own dominant culture, and that of his parents and grandparents,

yet he somehow survived without government intervention. Chances are some of those

written and spoken messages led him to rethink age-old beliefs and perhaps even jettison


It is not "cultural imperialism," as he calls it, but exactly the opposite:

it is the free marketplace of ideas where paternalistic protection of the citizenry

is unnecessary, where newspapers such as the Phnom Penh Post have the freedom to

publish articles questioning traditional Khmer culture, and where the people of Cambodia

are once again taking their rightful place.

Like a lot of recent press coverage of religion, the article tended to be one-dimensional.

A more nuanced approach might have mentioned similarities and differences in the

Christian and Hindu/Buddhist doctrines of heaven and hell, perhaps noting similar

graphic depictions of hell carved into the porticos of Angkor Wat.

It might have pointed out the irony that the religious pamphlet in question was printed

by a mission agency from Japan, another majority Buddhist country, and also the fact

that many, if not most, of the foreign missionaries in Cambodia come from other Asian


A more multi-dimensional article might have compared the growth of Christianity in

Asia to the spectacular rise of Buddhism and Hinduism in Western countries from 1960

to the present, completely unhampered by anti-proselytizing laws. It might have mentioned

the fact that there are more Moslems in the United States than there are United Methodists.

It might have woven in a comment on the anti-religious speech laws recently passed

in France that make it a crime for students to wear a cross or an Islamic head scarf.

And it certainly would not have painted all mission agencies in Cambodia with the

same broad brush, as if they would all approve of the approach used in the pamphlet.

Nearly all of those in Cambodia who are sharing their religious faith with others

are Khmer citizens. Any anti-proselytizing law would muzzle the very citizens it

seeks to protect.

There are always a few in Cambodia calling for the adoption of laws limiting religious

free speech, but Cambodia's leaders have wisely opposed such a move. We should all

follow the government's example.

J D Crowley - Ratanakkiri



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