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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hospital accused of 'forcing Jesus' on sick and dying

Hospital accused of 'forcing Jesus' on sick and dying

A FOREIGN funded hospital named after the King is under fire for its attempts to

convert patients and staff from Buddhism to Christianity and its alleged refusal

to abide by an agreement with the Ministry of Health over its tenure.

The Sihanouk Center of HOPE (COH) is based in the grounds of the Municpal Hospital

and predominantly run by Christians though funded through Japanese private donors.

Disputes have arisen particularly with the Municipal Hospital, which shares a compound

with the HOPE center, and monks who complain of attempts to convert patients at both

the Municipal and COH hospitals even during medical consultations.

Meanwhile there is also controversy over who should run the hospital and how long

it should stay.

Vira Avalokita, a Buddhist monk who occasionally works at the Municpial Hospital,

said that he had been assisting the Municipal Hospital and the Ministry of Health

to develop a new contract for the COH.

He said the original 1996 contract was "loosely worded" but its intention

seemed to be that COH would be put under Municipal Hospital administration after

three years.

He said that time limit had expired but there has been no move to transfer the facilities.

However hospital Executive Director Dr Graham Gumley said that there was no limit

on how long they could operate the hospital and it was open ended.

But for many people it is the proselytizing that is the greatest concern.

A former doctor and member of the church said that they had the most success converting

the terminally ill and mentally unstable in particular.

One patient, who brought her dying husband to the hospital, told the Post that she

had been directly approached during a medical consultation, to attend the church.

"The American doctor told us that my husband had AIDS," she said. "Then

the Khmer interpreter asked me to come to a ceremony on Sunday. He told me the address

of the church.

"I didn't know what was going on - I just went there, to the church. They offered

me cakes and talked about God."

The patient, who also has AIDS, said that she was told that certain Buddhist paraphernalia

which she was using were not appropriate.

"They told me that I did not need to burn incense or have spirit houses. They

told me not to do it," she said.

Dr Avalokita said that he had heard many complaints from patients about proselytizing

by the HOPE staff members.

It was immoral, he said, for a hospital to be using medical care as a way to change

people's cultural and religious beliefs.

"I'm not anti-Christian," he said, "but I think they should keep their

hands off Buddhism. People who are sick come for cures, and they're getting a religious

trip on top of that."

But he said that the patient who was converted to Christianity was actually "Smart.

These people had support for her if she jumped through the right hoops - she's being

pragmatic, she has to survive. I don't down her for that at all."

Dr Gumley said he could "imagine it happening" and added it would be part

of trying to help the patient as a whole.

However he denied that there was any policy or practise to convert people or tell

them about religion.

Former staff and patients say otherwise.

The doctor spoken to by the Post said that she quit for a lower paying job because

the work load was too heavy.

She said in addition to her medical work she was expected to make house calls to

check on peoples health and at the same time spread the Christian message.

"If I had only my medical job and only worked at the hospital, that's OK for

my health," she said.

"But with the religious work as well - it's too much for my energy."

The religious work, according to the doctor, did not stop at simply learning about

the church, which she said was known as the 'Restoration Church'.

She said that two weeks after she began work at the COH she was asked to go to religious

classes after lunch every day.

She said they would be taught by the "senior Christians" how to interpret

the word of God - and how to take that word to the patients.

"We are the middle men," she said. "We have to provide the word from

God to the patient."

However, the former doctor's testimony shows that she undertook more than just 'sharing

her beliefs' with patients.

According to her, the staff would approach the people most likely to be converted:

"We have seen that it works especially for the most hopeless and untreatable

patients, for example AIDS victims, cancer and mental health patients."

But what about people who do not want to convert?

The doctor said that they would not force people who were resistant to their approaches,

but that "it is not easy to convince people successfully the first time - we

have to go often and find the right words to make them believe.

"We take gifts, money and food and so on. Then they start to believe because

they have had kind things done to them."

The AIDS patient said this was true. She said that she was visited many times by

staff of the hospital at home, who brought her money - 10,000-20,000 riel, food,

"nice clothes" and gifts.

The doctor said house calls were part of her work when she was at the hospital -

and part of the reason that she left.

"I was asked to go to see the patients after they left the hospital, and while

I give the medicine, I am also giving them knowledge of 'Country of God'", she

admitted.

A visit by the Post to the COH also contradicted Dr Gumley's comments.

A nurse came out of the Municipal Hospital AIDs ward and said a foreigner was in

there giving out money and talking to people about God.

"He told my patients that [the Christian] God had struggled for people,"

she said, "'and that God had bled over the earth to rescue the people.'"

The nurse said he asked them "'How good is your God?'"

The Post reporter then went over to the ward where he saw the man approach patients

and talk about Christianity.

A security guard at the ward said that the man was from the Centre of Hope.

At that moment the man then proceeded to hand out $10 notes saying: "this money

is God's money. God gave it to you to buy something. . . everything you eat is from

God."

The patients when asked by the Post how they felt about the man said that they had

received no support from their relatives, and that Christian money was more important

than their Buddhist beliefs.

One patient said that the man talked to him about God.

"He said God is the hope of the people...But I expect I will die soon. I know

there is not medicine to cure this kind of illness [AIDS]," he said in a weak

voice.

"He was talking about God and sometimes I do not understand, I just reply 'yes,

yes,' and he gives me money," he said.

Tep Lun, Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Health, said that he was aware

of the proselytizing controversey.

"Actually, I heard very often people complaining about this, but I have actually

received only one formal complaint," he said.

The complaint was lodged by the former doctor.

Lun said that he thought there was a subtle pressure within the hospital because

of the Christian beliefs, but emphasised that he was there to help negotiate any

disputes.

Staff at the Municipal Hospital, which was built before the HOPE Center was created

on the same plot of land, said that even some of their staff and patients were taken

on Sundays by the HOPE staff for religious services, without the consent of the Municipal

staff.

Dr Gumley denied this strenuously.

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