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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Proselytising amid the poverty

Proselytising amid the poverty


Cambodia's relative religious freedoms have encouraged Christian groups to set up shop in the Kingdom, but they risk creating ‘rice Christians' when they preach to the poor 


Mormon missionaries Elder Jones and Elder Henderson take the time to talk people on the street about their doctrine.

Elders Jones and Henderson cycle calmly through Phnom Penh's rush-hour traffic, Bible bags strapped to their backs, white cotton shirts snapping in the breeze. It is becoming a familiar sight in Cambodia: clean-cut young missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - better known as the Mormon Church - taking to the streets to spread the Word of the Lord.

As missionaries, Jones and Henderson are awake at five and proselytise until eight in the evening, seven days a week. Both are nearing the end of their gruelling two-year stints in Phnom Penh, but look back on their time here with no regrets. "My purpose is to welcome others to come into the Word of Christ," Henderson said. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't love it."

He said their work is helped by the natural curiosity of the Cambodian people. "There's a lot of curiosity. There's a great number of people who are willing to hear the message that we are sharing," Henderson said.

Elder Jones, an Idaho native, agreed Cambodians' friendliness was an advantage for the church, which was founded in the US in 1830 and has since grown into a global religion with over 13 million adherents.

"We just go and talk to them," he said. "The Lord is in charge, and he's taking care of things."

With a local membership of over 8,000, Mormonism has led a significant demographic shift towards Christianity in Cambodia. According to the US State Department's 2007 International Religious Freedom Report, Christians make up around two percent of Cambodia's population (approximately 282,000 people), dispersed amongst 100 organisations.

Compared to more restrictive neighbouring countries like Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia has a relatively open climate for missionary work.

The law requires all religious groups to register with the Ministry of Cults and Religions if they wish to build places of worship or conduct religious activities. But according to the Religious Freedom report, "there is no penalty for failing to register, and in practice some groups do not." Only 900 of Cambodia's 2,400 churches are officially registered with the government.

Come to cambodia with suvs and tons of rice, and that's virtually bribery

Dok Narin, undersecretary of state at the ministry, said the constitution guaranteed freedom of religion and that there are few laws to regulating the day-to-day activities of missionaries. "We cannot control them, as we don't have any special laws," he said, adding that more regulation was desirable but difficult to balance with a commitment to religious freedom. "The ministry is planning laws to exercise more controls on religion, but we are afraid that it may affect the constitution," he said.

"Rice Christians"

In February 2003, the government imposed a ban on door-to-door proselytising, but the continuing lack of firm regulations has created fresh temptations. Cambodia has long been plagued by rumours that Christians were exploiting the nation's poverty to attract converts - a problem Christian leaders say goes to the heart of doing missionary work here.

"When a country like Cambodia opens up, you get greater freedoms to operate," said Vernon Elvish, a missionary with the Jehovah's Witnesses, who arrived here in 1992.

"In one way that's a good thing, but then you can also get the bad side of that freedom coming in," he said, adding that rumours of exploitation were hard to verify, but taken seriously.

"We're very conscious of making ‘rice Christians'," he said, referring to those who change religions on a material incentive. "Our organisation is purely a religious organisation.... We don't even teach English here, so if they want to become a Jehovah's Witness, it's because they want to become a Jehovah's Witness, not because they're getting any material benefit out of it."

David Manfred, a missionary with the Christian & Missionary Alliance (CAMA), founded in Cambodia in 1923, said the country's openness made it tempting for some missionaries and that "rice Christians" were a constant concern. 

"My own sense is that some groups have probably come here and, out of zeal, have used methodologies that we wouldn't feel comfortable with," Manfred told the Post. "There has been a tendency ... to inflate [conversion] numbers, or to count them differently. It's actually something we work quite hard to try and avoid, because that would not be the kind of faith that we're looking for."

Mormon mission President Robert Winegar said the church spent between US$400,000 and $1 million per year on charity and development programs, but that such activities were tightly sealed off from its religious work.

"In all of these [projects] we never talk about the church," he said, adding that the church asked more of its members than its members asked of the church. "Not only do we not use poverty as a lure to join the church; we invite members to donate [a] 10 percent [tithe] to help the church grow," he said.

Freelance missionaries

Some missionaries have gone further, distancing themselves from the large churches they say have made Christians dependent on foreign church money. Michael Freeze, a Baptist missionary who has worked in Cambodia since 2000, said that after four years of running a church in Phnom Penh, he became disillusioned and now focuses on small Bible study sessions.

"It became apparent to me that [Cambodians] were coming to church but not wanting to take part in building the church," he said. "That's why I no longer want to have a big structure and have them think that ‘this is the Western money train, I want to get on board'."

An independent Khmer-American pastor, who declined to be named because of his associations with several organisations in Cambodia, agreed that the massive economic gap between Westerners and most Cambodians turned proselytising into an ethical minefield.

While outright bribes were rare, he said that economic dependency was hard to avoid.

"It's good to give, but you have to be very careful how you give. You come to Cambodia with SUVs and tonnes of rice, and that's virtually bribery," he said.

The pastor said the financial concerns of some large churches had compromised their aims.

"If you build your foundation on money,  religion will crumble," he said, singling out the Mormons for criticism.

"I believe that churches have made a lot of mistakes in terms of their focus on finance and on getting their numbers up. That's where the church of Mormon comes in. They know how to work the system.... But all the money in the world can't buy God."

CAMA's Manfred said that in terms of building local capacity and avoiding the pitfalls of dependency, the principles of effective missionary activity were similar to the principles of effective aid work. "I think that the use of money is an area where we have to be hugely careful, so that these kinds of patron-client relationships are not established," he said.

Given the lack of government oversight, Manfred added, some Christian groups imposed a regime of regulation on themselves. CAMA has associated itself with the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, an umbrella organisation representing a large number of missions, which has a stringent code of conduct prohibiting the use of material "enticements".

"We limit the amount of money coming from the outside in terms of direct support [to churches]," he said.

"My problem with this is when they try to wean themselves off, there's already a bit of dependency, and they'll often just look for another patron."

But Freeze said these mistakes were often a result of a lack of understanding of the local context, something that could be overcome through in-country experience. "Most groups have genuine heart," he said. "But a lot of the problem here is a misunderstanding of culture."




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