Religion is obviously one of the important structures in Cambodian society. It has played a key role in leadership and nation building for a thousand years.
Throughout the history of religion in Cambodia, Khmer people have built thousands of temples under the leadership of the King. Apart from his royal duties and privileges, the King was also the nation’s religious leader. Often, he was considered a god or a god-king. That made the King very powerful both in religious and leadership aspects.
However, religion can also destroy a country when there is a conflict between faiths. In the Angkor period, there was a conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism. This not only destroyed the country but also the different cultures.
Nowadays, religion still holds a key place in Cambodian identity. Nearly everyone in Cambodia is Buddhist. Also, the three words in the country’s motto - Nation, Religion, King - describe Cambodian priorities well.
The Cambodian constitution guarantees freedom of religion. The government assures us that this right is respected. Furthermore, it is not only the right to believe what one chooses that is guaranteed by the government but also the right to practise this freely.
Besides Buddhism, which is the state religion of Cambodia, there are also some Muslims and a small number of Christians in the country as well.
Muslims in Cambodia (Khmer-Islam or Cham) are allowed to practise their religion as they wish. There is no discrimination against them. The Chams also enjoy democratic rights like all the Khmer citizens, with the right to vote for and be elected as politicians.
The same freedoms apply to the practising Western religions in the country. You may well have seen missionaries around your city. The number of Cambodians converting to Christianity has been growing quite quickly in the Kingdom.
Many missionaries work every day. The Mormon church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is one of many sects of Christianity that has found a place in Cambodia. The number of Mormon missionaries is increasing at a fast pace.
Currently in Cambodia there are 155 Mormon missionaries. There are six Mormon churches (districts) in Phnom Penh with 11,469 members, according to a one church in the capital.
It is easy to spot Mormon missionaries making their way around the city - you might have seen them yourself. They usually ride a bike and wear a helmet, white shirt and black trousers, and always carry with them notebooks or the Bible. They are always smiling and they can speak Khmer.
Because Buddhism does send out missionaries to convert people, I found it interesting to get to know more about Mormon missionaries. I followed them to their places of worship and around the community, speaking to them as well as to their converts.
The most striking thing about the Mormons as a group is that they are incredibly friendly, pious, decent and helpful people. However, sometimes it arouses my suspicion when people are too friendly.
Of course, a few days of keen research is too short a time to get to know everything about the Mormons, but one of the things that really surprised me was the fact that their members pay contributions to the church (one-tenth of their income, according to a family I asked). The family pays $25 to $30 per month. They described it as a “donation” or “gift” to God so that they would be blessed by Him. If it is true and the average member pays $20 a month, then considering there are 11,469 members – that is a lot of donations. According to the website Mormon.org, this major source of revenue is based on the ancient law of the tithe (one out of 10), which means people are expected to pay 10 per cent of their income to move forward the work of the church.
Giving donations is standard in every religion. Buddhists also do it. To me, donations are good when they come from the willingness of the givers, without force or a set rule. But people have a right to choose, anyway.
I am not against religion, be it Christianity, Mormonism, Islam or Buddhism. I believe that the idea of these religions as a moral guidance is good per se. Religion helps to teach people to be good. I respect people who do good things by not harming anyone else, regardless of which religion they follow.