The Mormon image personified by its clean-cut young men in white shirts and ties is a far stronger attraction to Cambodians than promises
IN 1996, Jesus Christ entered 43-year-old Buon Thay's life wearing a white doctor's
smock and carrying a stethoscope.
"I was sick, and the Christians took me to hospital," Thay explained of
her American missionary saviors, whom she knows only as "Michael and Elizabeth".
Ever since that fateful hospital visit, Thay and a growing number of her immediate
family have renounced their Buddhist faith to become Christians.
Thay admits she understands little of anything about basic Christian doctrine ("I
can't remember any of the words we say in church," she says with a laugh) but
she's convinced she made the right decision.
"Buddhism taught me that I had to be responsible for myself, but with Christianity
a community of people take care of you, Thay explained as she tended the clapboard
stand from which she sells kitchen sundries along Route 5 south of Kampong Chhnang
Buon Hari, Thay's 18-year-old daughter, is more explicit about the temporal rewards
of the Christian faith she herself embraced six months ago.
"The American missionaries give poor families like us $50 a month if we join
their church," she told the Post.
Across Cambodia, more than 700 Protestant sects and hundreds of missionaries are
hard at work building churches, funneling aid to needy communities and seeking converts
among the Kingdom's traditionally Buddhist population.
Conversion strategies range from the crude but effective financial incentives employed
by "Michael and Elizabeth" to more sophisticated dissemination techniques
of Campus Crusade for Christ/New Life Church, who screen religious films in rural
communities and operate 89.5FM, Cambodia's first 24-hour Christian radio station.
According to the Ministry of Cults and Religions, the Christian message is reaching
increasing numbers of Cambodians each year, from the rural poor to once-fanatical
Khmer Rouge cadre such as Deuch, former head of the Khmer Rouge S-21 torture center.
For Yim Youdavann, the stories of people like Thay and Hari are the stuff of nightmares.
As Acting Chief of the Ministry of Cults and Religions Department of Foreign Religions,
Youdavann is pitifully understaffed and underfunded to monitor what she admits is
"an increasing trend" of Buddhist Cambodians converting to Christianity.
"According to Article 43 of the law regulating religions, people cannot 'buy'
converts to any religion," Youdavann explained. "But the Cambodian government
is very poor and can't provide for their needs, so if someone helps them they tend
to follow them."
Unlike some American Protestant sects that zealously proselytize, Catholic missionaries, above, recognize "the light of God in all religions" and require potential converts from Buddhism to study for at least three years.
Not so, says Campus Crusade for Christ spokesperson Taing Vek Huong.
"It's an expression of God's love to offer physical help in the form of clothes
and rice to people in need," Huong said. "But to me, it's wrong to use
this help to bring people to God."
Instead, Christians of all stripes operating in Cambodia attribute the marked increase
in Cambodians converting to Christianity as a reflection of a widespread profound
disillusionment with Buddhism rather than any Christian hard-sell.
"Nowadays many more young Cambodian people want to be Christian," explained
Father Francois Ponchaud, author of Cambodia Year Zero and a Jesuit priest who began
working in Cambodia in the mid-1960s. "There is an idea that Buddhism has failed,
that the key Buddhist precept that those who do good get good in return while those
who do bad are punished has been proven false by the realities of modern Cambodian
Youdavann echoes Ponchaud by noting that the challenges facing Buddhism in modern
Cambodian society have only compounded a severe society-wide crisis of faith wrought
by the vicious excesses of the Khmer Rouge regime.
"The Khmer Rouge were originally Buddhist people too, so people struggle with
the question of why they killed so many people so cruelly," she explained. "The
bad behavior of many modern monks also disappoints many people."
Christian churches working within Cambodia have chosen to exploit the growing disenchantment
with Buddhism in markedly different ways.
"I always tell people that if they can't be good Buddhists, they can't become
good Christians," Ponchaud says of the Catholic church's renunciation of proselytizing
and a Vatican II-inspired recognition of "the light of God in all religions".
Quick fixes are likewise disapproved of by the Catholic Church in Cambodia.
"Becoming a Catholic is a very long process, at least three years involving
explanation of Catholic beliefs and between two to three years to reflect on Buddhism
and Catholicism," he explained.
In spite of such a go-slow approach, Ponchaud says the Catholic Church in Cambodia
is bouncing back from the cataclysm it suffered during the Khmer Rouge regime, when
its majority Vietnamese congregation was subjected to murder and exile and the imposing
Catholic cathedral near the train station on Monivong Boulevard in Phnom Penh was
demolished in 1977 "as a symbol of Vietnamese influence".
"The Catholic Church is growing, little by little," Ponchaud said. "This
year we will do around 100 new baptisms."
In contrast to the Catholic approach, among other Christian groups at work in the
Kingdom, respect for the Buddhist religion to which most Cambodians claim to belong
is often sacrificed to the demands of proselytizing.
"To me, Buddhist is not just a harmless local religion, it's imported just like
Christianity," explained recently arrived American missionary Bonnie Blackard.
"To me [Buddhism] is a dead end because of its belief that one's fate is in
control of capricious gods ... to me it's not harmless."
Although Cambodian converts to Christianity tend not to be as disparaging of their
former faith as Blackard, like their brethren on Route 5 in Kampong Chhnang they
insist that Buddhism just doesn't deliver the way Christianity seems to do.
"I learned from my grandfather that if I worshipped with incense I would live
a peaceful life; that if I give offerings to monks I'd receive blessings and assistance,"
Sidara Eang, Program Coordinator for the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, explained.
"But those things never happened."
Over at the Phnom Penh mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
better known as the Mormons, talk of the physical rewards of Christianity earns a
stern look from mission president Dr Lee D White.
"We worry greatly about people attracted to our church in hope of material rewards,
and that's what sets us apart," White told the Post. "We teach self-reliance
and don't provide any kind of subsidies, or even provision for transport [to prospective
White says the Mormon image personified by its clean-cut young American men in white
shirts and ties is a far stronger attraction to Cambodians than promises of cash,
rice and clothes.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say we were perceived as exotic and American,"
White said of the growth of the church's congregation to 1,400 members since its
establishment in 1996.
And although White insists that his 64 American missionaries and "an even greater
number" of local missionaries are instructed to be respectful of the Buddhist
faith and not be overly-aggressive in their proselytizing rounds, he admits that
what actually happens on the street is out of his hands.
"We instruct our [missionaries] not too be assertive or invasive and if told
that [a potential convert] is not interested, they are instructed to move on,"
White said. "I'd like to believe they obey that instruction."
The Rev Billy Vouen of the New Apostolic Church has intimate knowledge of the Buddhism
from which he seeks to convert his countrymen and the risks of offering material
rewards for Christian conversions.
A Buddhist monk from the age of seven to 19, Vouen was converted to Christianity
in a Thai border camp in 1979.
"In the border camps just about everybody was a Christian," Vouen says
with a laugh. "People thought that by having a certificate of baptism it would
make their lives easier in a new country."
With 500 congregations across the Kingdom with an estimated 80,000 followers, Vouen's
New Apostolic Church is reaping a windfall created by what he describes as "widespread
dissatisfaction" with the Cambodian status quo.
"In Cambodia today, nobody respects other people, but we talk about respect
and love and that makes people happy," he said.
Voeun says that the only impediment to even further expansion of Christianity's reach
in Cambodia is government regulation that limit the number of churches that can be
built by any one sect.
"If the government allows us to work freely, this country will one day become
completely Christian," he said confidently.