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
"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
"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."
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
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."