CAMBODIA remains a safe haven for religious freedom, the US state department wrote in a report last week.
The “2009 Report on International Religious Freedom”, which covered 198 countries and territories from July 2008 to June this year, found the Cambodian government “respected religious freedom in practice” in line with protections contained in the Kingdom’s 1993 Constitution.
“There were few reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief or practice,” stated the report. An estimated 93 percent of the population follows Theravada Buddhism, according to the report, but the country is also home to between 500,000 and 700,000 Muslims and a 282,000-strong Christian community dispersed among 100 organisations and denominations.
Michael Freeze, a Baptist missionary who has worked in Cambodia since 2000, said he was not surprised by the report’s conclusions.
“If you’re doing things correctly, in an aboveboard way, you’ve got nothing to fear here,” he said.
“In some ways it’s more free than in the United States.”
Although Article 43 of the Constitution establishes Buddhism as the state religion, it also promises that freedom of religious belief “shall be guaranteed by the State” on the condition it “does not affect other religious beliefs or violate public order and security”.
The State Department report cited local fears that Cham Muslims have received “financial assistance” from foreign countries, but found Chams were “well-integrated into society, held prominent positions in business and the government, and faced no reported acts of discrimination or abuse” during the reporting period.
Observers have long expressed concerns that the country’s Muslim population could be vulnerable to attempts by religious extremists from other parts of the Muslim world to “re-Islamise” their communities.
In 2003, Hambali, one of the architects of the 2002 Bali bombings, spent several months at a Phnom Penh guesthouse, and radicals from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Malaysia have also been suspected of using Cambodia as a base.
Min Khin, the minister of cults and religions, said on Monday that the government has made great efforts to respect the religious beliefs of all of its inhabitants, including the Cham Muslim minority.
“For students who respect Islam, we offer the right for them to wear either their school uniform or their religious clothes,” he said.
He also said the government allowed Cham Muslims to make religious radio and television broadcasts in their own language, programmes that are also supported by the US government.
Sos Kamry, grand mufti of the High Commission of Islamic Affairs of Cambodia, said he had never experienced any pressure from the government to curb Islamic practices.
Sos Kamry contrasted the country’s stance with that of Singapore, which he said forbids mosques from using loudspeakers to broadcast the daily calls to prayer.