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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - State Commandment: Thou shall not buy Buddhists

State Commandment: Thou shall not buy Buddhists

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Children enjoy snacks after christian services in Boeng Tumpon.

It's a recent Sunday and delighted children stream from the doors of a Christian

church in the impoverished Boeng Tumpon suburb of Phnom Penh. They munch happily

on chips and sweets, oblivious of the growing storm that has recently clouded their

usual weekly outing.

Local resident Yeay Phat told the Post that every Saturday and Sunday the church

has a party for those who attend service with cake, candy and soft drinks. But such

seemingly innocent occasions may be coming to an end.

"Most people who live in Boeng Tumpon left Buddhism and joined the church because

every month they provide rice, clothes, medicine, and free medical treatment for

women," Phat said. "I am still Buddhist. I just join sometimes on Sundays

for the party."

Now, a June 26 directive from the Ministry of Cults and Religions (MoCR) has banned

religious groups from using money, free education, language lessons or food to entice

and retain followers. Religious festivities at Boeng Tunpon may be a thing of the

past.

"MoCR has issued this kind of directive many times already," said MoCR

secretary of state Sun Kim Hun. "It is just to remind other religions operating

in Cambodia - not only Christianity but we refer to all religions that breach regulations

- to correct themselves."

The MoCR made its decision after receiving information from various provinces that

some religions are promoting themselves improperly, Hun said.

The methods seem particularly prevalent in the provinces. Phnom Penh university student

Sum Sophea said that in her home village in Kampot province the church would give

families that attended services $50 per month.

"Some of my Christian friends at my university have their education paid for

by the church," Sophea said. "Sometimes I wish I was Christian."

According to Phat, the church in Boeng Tumpon is currently building an English school

for local children.

Father Jim Noonan of Mary- knoll, a Catholic organization that has been involved

in humanitarian work in Cambodia since 1989, said that Christian groups, along with

other NGOs and humanitarian groups, have contributed considerably toward advancements

in education, health care and poverty reduction for many years. He said using incentives

to entice people to change their faith goes against the spirit of the Gospel.

"Jesus did not ask people to convert before he would help them," Noonan

said. "We help people because they need help regardless of their faith. Of course

we hope that our good work will draw their interest to the church, but for Maryknoll

and the Catholic Church our doctrine is that we should leave people totally free

to make their own choices about religion. They should not be manipulated in any way."

Noonan said the work of many religious groups, even when limited to those of the

same faith, stems from a genuine desire to help fellow Christians. But when material

assets are used to convert those of a different faith, these conversions come from

material need, not from the heart.

"I strongly feel that many people who have started their journey in this way

have later experienced a genuine change of heart," said Noonan. "They have

found something within the teaching of Christ that has touched them - but they experienced

this despite the manipulation at the start, not because of it."

Kek Galabru, president of Human Rights group LICADHO, said that Christian aid work

must first be viewed as humanitarian work. The people who receive benefits may be

poor but they still have the freedom to choose their own beliefs, she said.

"If you stop this work the poor people are the ones that will suffer,"

said Galabru. "If a religious group offers free medical treatment, maybe the

patient is happy and decides to change, but it is still their choice."

No more door to door

The directive further called for religious groups to cease proselytizing by microphone

or from door to door, and from "making any loud noise that will disturb people

at home or in their office."

Jehovah's Witnesses, known worldwide for their door-to-door preaching, reported 216

active members in Cambodia at the end of last year, conducting a total of 1,025 home

bible studies. Seventy-eight of these members were either foreign missionaries or

full-time bible teachers, according to their annual report.

A representative of the Daun Penh congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Phnom Penh

said they always respect others' religious beliefs, never converting people by force,

deceptive words or material benefits. Public preaching, however, is a fundamental

part of Jehovah's Witness beliefs and plays a key role in their worship. Galabru

told the Post that a restriction on public preaching is a violation of Article 18

of the Declaration of Human Rights, which states everyone has a right to manifest

their religion or beliefs publicly or in private in teaching, practice, worship and

observance.

"If they are preaching peacefully then they have the right to continue,"

she said. "Everyone has the right both to preach about their religion and to

hear about other religions."

Robert Winegar, mission president of the Cambodian Phnom Penh Mission for the Church

of Christ and Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons, said the church

has adjusted its well-known preaching methods to meet with Ministry requirements.

"We do not entice people by giving them gifts," he said. "We have

a message; if people want to hear it then we talk to them. But if they do not want

to listen, we move on. This [directive] was not directed at us. We have been assured

by the Ministry in a meeting on July 18 that our activities in no way conflict with

the directives set out."

Government oversight

The directive further stated that all religions must ask permission from the Ministry

before building a church or conducting religious activities. On June 14, MoCR met

with all religious representatives in Cambodia to talk about their activities. It

asked each religion to provide statistics on followers and religious buildings, Hun

said.

According to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor International Religious

Freedom Report 2006, Christians make up approximately 2 percent of the Cambodian

population. There were an estimated 100 Christian organizations or denominations

that operated freely throughout the country including approximately 2,400 churches.

Only 900 of these churches were officially registered with the government.

Despite the stern decree, the MoCR admitted its influence is limited.

"I think that the directive will be ineffective," Hun said. "Those

religions will stop their activity for a while but then they will do the same thing

again. The MoCR does not have any law for punishing religions that breach the directive.

If it happens again and again then MoCR will investigate and cooperate with the Ministry

of Interior who has the power to enforce these regulations."

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