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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - When the Saints go marching in: Missionaries in Cambodia

When the Saints go marching in: Missionaries in Cambodia

Mormon missionaries Elder Yi, left, Elder Spencer and Elder Tay in front of their almost-completed "meeting place" on Street 63 in Phnom Penh.

S

itting cross-legged in a small wooden house on the out skirts of Phnom Penh, a young

woman says a prayer. The house, with its fire-blackened kettle and faded watercolor

of Angkor Wat on the wall, is typical of Cambodia. The prayer is not. It is a Christian

prayer, spoken in Khmer, to begin a visit by two young men in white short-sleeve

shirts from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon

Church.

In February of this year, the church received something of a setback when a joint

directive from the Ministry of Cults and Religions (MoCR) and the Ministry of Interior

banned door-to-door evangelistic preaching, a response to complaints that citizens

were being disturbed in their homes. The order was issued to all religious organizations,

including Buddhists, but as one of the more enthusiastic missionary sects in Cambodia,

and one that prides itself on adhering strictly to the laws of its host country,

it was a particular blow for the Mormon Church.

But the restriction hasn't dampened the spirits of the 81 missionaries, most of whom

come for a two-year stint abroad after three months of language and Bible training

in America.

During a meeting this October, Elder Peer, a 20-year-old from the state of Delaware

in the US, answered questions in fluent Khmer posed by two young brothers invited

to learn more about the religion from Cambodian members of the church.

They read aloud from the Book of Mormon, a text the church says was translated with

divine assistance from golden tablets by American Joseph Smith in 1827. Mormons believe

that certain truths have been lost from the Bible through the course of history but

are contained in the Book of Mormon.

The brothers nod and occasionally smile. They appear to be receptive to the message

being spread by these earnest young men and make a date for another visit. Their

parents are Buddhist but have "no problems" with their sons' interest in

this other religion.

Across Cambodia, interest in Christianity continues to boom. The MoCR puts the number

at 52,760, but the figure could be as high as 100,000 according to a US State Department

report.

Among them are many foreigners who come to Cambodia to assist with humanitarian work

and others who come seeking converts. As the Mormons put it, they are here to "bring

souls to Christ".

Since 1997, the Mormon church has grown to include 6,000 members spread across 15

congregations, mostly in Phnom Penh. The church is based in the US state of Utah,

where 70 percent of the population is Mormon, but the biggest growth has been seen

abroad, with a global membership now exceeding 11 million. Experts say that at the

current rate of expansion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could

increase to more than 50 million members by 2040 and become the first new world religion

since Islam, according to the Economist.

After six years of renting spaces on Cambodian soil, the Mormons are putting down

roots with a huge custom-designed "meeting place" due for completion by

the end of the year. Situated on church-owned land along Street 63 in Phnom Penh,

the building was designed by a French architect, built by a local contractor and

will house a 300-capacity chapel and classrooms.

Church authorities would not disclose the cost of the building.

Currently, most of the church's money and the majority of its missionaries come from

the United States. But locals are taking increasing control of the church's direction.

Each of the 15 Branch Leaders who lead local congregations are Cambodian, and the

group's head figure in the country, mission president David Towers, says he expects

it will not be long before Cambodians themselves will take their place at the top.

The Mormons' significant investment in Cambodia has come at a time when the relationship

between Christians and the predominantly Buddhist population has been less than harmonious.

Last November, hundreds of people in Prey Veng province protested against the Christian

presence in certain villages, and a group calling themselves the "Committee

of 20 Pagodas All Clergymen and All Parishes" labeled Jesus as "Pol Pot

Number Two."

Kampuchea for Christ International admitted it was the target of the protest.

During the 1970s, Christianity also attracted the wrath of the Khmer Rouge, who killed

an estimated 10,000 Cambodian Christians, along with more than a million Buddhists

who also died. The Khmer Rouge also destroyed many churches, including the grand

Notre Dame Cathedral that once stood near the Hotel Le Royal.

But in the refugee camps that swelled on the Thai border following the end of the

regime, Christian conversion boomed in controversial circumstances. Francois Ponchaud,

a Catholic priest and author of Cathedral of the Rice Paddy, was at the camps and

condemns the blending of religion with relief work he witnessed.

Critics describe "food-for-faith" charities and Ponchaud told Newsweek

at the time that the experience made him "ashamed" to be Christian. It's

a sentiment that he repeats today when talking about what he sees as aggressive preaching

and rushed baptisms by the Mormons.

"They make pressure, pressure, pressure," says Ponchaud. "Christ liberated

us. [Mormon conversion] is not liberation; they make new slaves."

Not surprisingly, the head of the Mormons in Cambodia disagrees.

"We don't enslave anybody," says Towers, listing the financial obligations

and lifestyle restrictions-Mormons are forbidden to consume alcohol, cigarettes,

coffee or tea-that he says indicate the commitment shown by new converts.

"Nobody is ever prohibited from leaving our organization if they choose to do

so. Nobody is forced to come to any meetings, it's all strictly voluntary,"

says Towers.

Like the Mormons, the Jehovah's Witnesses are also affected by the Ministry's directive

restricting how evangelistic groups proselytize.

Vern Elvish, a missionary with the Jehovah's Witnesses, said they have adjusted their

activities to conform to the new rules, but declined to specify what those changes

were. Despite having been in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge regime and returning

in 1993, the Jehovah's Witnesses' membership is a comparatively modest 160.

"We're not so interested in numbers," says Elvish. "What we want to

do is let people follow what they know from the Bible."

David Towers, president of the Mormon mission in Cambodia.

The 'Seedling of Hope' program works with about 1,300 people affected by HIV/AIDS,

and is one of 12 projects run by the internationally funded Catholic organization

known as Maryknoll.

Although the Reverend Jim Noonan is open about the fact that his faith has led him

to do this work, he says that actions of kindness speak louder than preaching.

"We don't have any expectations of people changing their religion, that isn't

our motive," says Noonan.

"If any of them ask, which very, very few do, then we'd be happy to explain

what our faith is, but we never ask them to listen," he says. "You can

never convert someone even if you think you can. It's between a person and God."

The Missionaries of Charity, perhaps best known for their recently beatified founder

Blessed Mother Teresa, are another group that puts community work before religion

in day-to-day practice.

"We might talk to them about God, but if they want to know more we will send

them to the Catholic Church," said a nun, who didn't want to be named or photographed,

saying it was against the "humble" nature of her work.

The order has 18 sisters who currently look after 30 underprivileged children and

run a weekly health service that sees up to 300 patients. Although the Missionaries

of Charity is generally associated with nuns, four "brothers" are getting

ready to join the Cambodian team, working in the field of mental illness.

The Mormon Church has also addressed the gender imbalance among its members, recently

adding 12 "sisters" to its 69 "elders" now working in Cambodia.

Sister Downing is a 22-year-old from New York who has already initiated ten baptisms

during the three months that she and her Cambodian partner, Sister Sam, have worked

as missionaries here.

"I've experienced already some people who have said it's just a lot more comfortable

for them to talk to a sister because we are all girls and it's easier for them in

their culture to talk to girls," says Sister Downing.

She says the presence of a Cambodian missionary also puts people at ease.

"I think it helps a lot because they see that it's not just Americans coming

to push something on them, they see that it's their own people trying to help their

own people," Downing says.

One thing Buddhist Cambodians may not be so comfortable with is the Mormon practice

of proxy baptisms.

Originally from Kampong Cham, 21-year-old Elder Yi has been with the church for two

years and has just become a missionary. This week Yi will fly to Hong Kong to visit

a Mormon temple where, among other acts of worship, he will "work for the dead".

This involves taking a list of 25 deceased relatives, who were all Buddhist, and

undergoing a baptism on their behalf in an effort to bring their lost souls to Christ.

But is it right to impose a Christian faith on those who lived and died as Buddhists?

"We believe that baptism is essential for salvation," explains Towers.

He says Mormons believe that after death everyone will ultimately be resurrected

with perfect bodies, but in the meantime they go to a "spirit world" where

missionary work goes on just as it does on earth.

"At some point everybody will be given the opportunity to either accept or reject

Jesus Christ as their savior," says Towers. "If they reject it, even if

the work's been done in the temple, it's of no value to them. We aren't changing

them at all, their free agency is still intact."

In a surprising twist of the practice, the playwright William Shakespeare, who lived

hundreds of years before the Book of Mormon was translated, is one of the millions

retrospectively baptized. Whether he chose to be or not to be a Mormon is another

question.

However, it's clear that many in Cambodia are deciding to turn their backs on traditional

Buddhist beliefs and embrace Christianity.

For Towers, there is a simple explanation.

"I think the main reason they accept our message is that it's true," he

says. "We don't tell them Buddhism is wrong... we simply teach what we have

to offer."

Francois Ponchaud, an observer of religion in Cambodia since 1965, is a little more

circumspect.

"For many young people, Christianity is modernity," the French-Catholic

scholar says. "Buddhism is a religion for old people. You go to the pagoda,

there are no young people there. They want justice, freedom, equality and these are

all values of Christianity."

But there may be another reason for the growing interest in Christianity: money.

Rumors abound among the religious community of bought conversions and financial incentives

for church attendance, but they are difficult to verify.

Ponchaud says he knows of a Protestant church in south Phnom Penh that gave rice

to widows and payments of $1 to encourage people to come to the Sunday service, but

he did not recall the name or specific denomination of the church.

He also claims that five years ago a recently appointed pastor from the New Apostolic

Church came to him asking what he should teach his congregation, since the church

had provided him with a $30 monthly salary but he had little idea about the Christian

faith.

Sok Thoeun, District Elder for the New Apostolic Church, admits that some of the

organization's 300 clergy are less informed than others

The Canada-based church claims to have 70,000 members, making it the biggest Christian

organization in Cambodia. Thoeun says its rapid pace of expansion does not allow

them to instill a strong understanding of their beliefs in every new member.

"Sometimes [a convert's] mind is still Buddhist," Thoeun says of those

in the countryside who join the church. "But it's better than if [someone] does

not know [about Christianity]."

The new face of Mormonism: Sister Downing, left, and Sister Sam are among the the first women missionaries to work in Cambodia.

Mormons take a different approach, expecting members to hand over 10 percent of their

annual income to the church. This tithe system earns the church $6 billion worldwide

annually, according to an article in The Economist last year. Mormons are also encouraged

to take part in a two-meal fast every month, redistributing the money saved to those

within the church who need it most.

Elders and their leaders undertake their missions voluntarily, freeing the church

funds to flow into expansion projects such as the new "meeting place" in

Phnom Penh.

The Mormons also have a branch called Latter-day Saints Charities that works in orphanages

and runs training centers teaching English and vocational skills, but this is kept

separate from their evangelistic work.

Whether religious organizations are doing aid work or seeking conversions, there

is no question about their right to be here. Theravada Buddhism is the official state

religion of Cambodia, but the Constitution protects religious freedom, provided those

freedoms do not impinge on the rights of others. The MoCR also requires that organizations

inform the ministry or local authorities about any coming religious events.

The Minister of Cults and Religions, Chea Savoeun, says this courtesy is usually

adhered to, but not always.

On November 9, a Christian group took advantage of the thousands of people out celebrating

the Water Festival near the Independence Monument, distributing booklets and showing

a religious movie. Young members of the Faith in Christ Church were keen to engage

the large crowd in conversations about the Christian message. Savoeun says he was

not aware of the event.

"It's wrong," he says "They are not allowed to do this . Not only

on public holidays but any day."

"If they do [preaching] in the temple they have a right, but if they go outside

and give away material then it is wrong," says Savoeun.

However, Dara Cheat, pastor at Faith in Christ Church, denied responsibility, saying

a Korean organization was behind the promotion and that his members merely took the

opportunity to "share the good news".

Sok Thoeun, a District Elder of the 70,000-member New Apostolic Church, presiding over a Sunday service.

While many denominations in Cambodia have been imported from established churches

overseas, Faith in Christ Church began locally eight years ago. Dara Cheat says his

members do not engage in door-knocking evangelism in the capital but "very seldom,

once a year" he'll send his students to preach in the provinces.

This laid back approach to proselytizing stands in stark contrast to the efficient

Mormon operation. From the corporate feel of the Phnom Penh administrative office

to elders with business cards, the modern Mormon Church is a powerful evangelistic

institution keen to expand its membership and shed its reputation for clannishness

and polygamy. (The practice of keeping multiple wives was outlawed in 1890 and offenders

are officially excommunicated from the church.)

Mormon missionaries may no longer be allowed to knock on someone's door when they

"have a strong feeling" the occupants need to hear their message, but with

6,000 Cambodian members keen to share their religion with family and friends, there

is still plenty of work for missionaries like Elder Peer and Sang.

On October 21, as dusk fell on the semi-rural outskirts of Phnom Penh, the two missionaries

made their last stop at the house of a young couple who had been considering the

church for two months. The yard was lively with scurrying chickens and folding chairs

were arranged around a vase of flowers placed on a stump. A seesaw made of logs and

bamboo sat unused nearby.

Nursing her one-year-old child, Netha reclined in a hammock listening to the elders

"share a message about baptism". Sang read aloud from the Book of Mormon

while Peer held up colored pictures explaining the life of Jesus. There was a discussion

in Khmer that ended with nodding and a gentle jaa from Netha, meaning "yes"

in Khmer.

The Reverend Jim Noonan of the Catholic Maryknoll order talks with a woman sewing quilts for the HIV/AIDS Seedlings of Hope project.

Returning to their house, Elder Peer and Sang greet two other missionaries, describing

their day. It turns out that Netha's jaa was an agreement to be baptized, meaning

she will attend church, be accepted into the fellowship and set a date for her symbolic

rebirth into Christianity.

The elders are tired but exultant.

"As I've proselytized in other areas I've seen people change and that's the

greatest miracle I think that's in this work," says Elder Peer. "It's not

a change in material wealth but you see people be more happy and you see them be

more content with their situation and that's the greatest miracle that happens each

day."

It has been another good day for the Mormons.

 

Religion in Cambodia by numbers

 

DENOMINATION
Theravada Buddhism

Cham Muslim

New Apostolic Church

Catholic Church

Mormons

Seventh-Day Adventists

Jehovah's Witnesses

Faith in Christ

Aprox Christian total

MEMBERS
11.6 million

500,000-700,000

70,000

25,000

6,000

4,534

160

100

105,000

 

The Ministry of Cult & Religions estimates the total number of Christians in

Cambodia at 52,760. However, church officials offered their own estimates on the

size of their congregations which suggest considerably more-at least 100,000 members.
No figures could be independently verified and some denominations were unable to

provide figures. Cambodia has a population of approximately 13 million people.

 

 

 

 

Sources: US State Department, academic studies, church officials.

 

 

 

 

Views on proselytizing

In February this year the Ministry of Cults and Religions and the

Ministry of Interior banned door-to-door preaching. The Post asked a few people whether

Christian missionaries should be allowed to continue evangelistic work in Cambodia.

By Cheang Sokha

"I do not know much about [other] religions, since when I was growing up,

I know only about Buddhism. I still believe and respect Buddhism.

"I used to see Christian missionaries ride bicycles past my house, but I don't

know who they are and what they do in Cambodia. I could not say which religion is

good or bad."
-Bou Aun, 57, Phnom Penh resident.

"I joined a Christian church for a few months with my friends when I was in

high school. I think Christianity is more complicated than Buddhism, but that does

not mean it is not good. Each religion leads the people to walk in the same right

way. The important thing is how people follow and believe that religion.

"I think [missionaries] will not affect the country or other religions because

it depends on how people understand themselves and how they believe and respect those

religions."
-Lim Vicheth, 27, employee of the Institute of Information Technology and Management.

"The law in the Constitution does not prohibit any religion from working in

Cambodia. In fact, they have the right and freedom to do so. But they should not

do anything that affects other religions or disturbs people.

"Every religion aims to lead people to be good, but they also have weak points.

The missionaries [of every religion] will say anything in order to attract people

to their beliefs.

"All the religions are very useful to educated people to urge people to act

in the right way, but the people have to clearly understand each religion."

-Sok Ratha, 49, official in the Ministry of Defense

 

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