On Christmas morning, Cambodia’s tiny Christian minority will hold celebrations in churches across the Kingdom, but while their numbers are small, the tight-knit community has a strong bond, says Seng Sovann, who has led the Phnom Penh Church of Christ for the past six years.
Like most Cambodian Christians, he was not born into the religion but converted.
The 36-year-old father of two describes his conversion as swift. After moving to Phnom Penh in 1993 for university, he was invited by a classmate to attend a church service. “I was baptised after two weeks,” he said.
His wife, Bin Pheap, was more reluctant. “I was frequently invited by friends to attend church, but I wasn’t really interested and was too busy with other things on the weekend,” she said. “One day I didn’t have anything to do, so I decided to go see what it was about.”
Her family’s reaction to her conversion was strong. “They thought I’d gone mad,” she said. She is the only Christian among her eight siblings.
Bin Pheap said those who converted ran into resistance within their families.
“While there used to be a lot of societal resistance against Christians in the 1990s, the greatest resistance now comes from within the family”, she said.
“It is not always easy [to be Christian],” said Chhun Savoeun, a 38-year-old father of two from Kandal province who was baptized in 1997. His parents, both Buddhists, were staunchly opposed to Christianity.
“If you go [to church], don’t come back home,” they warned him. When he married another Christian, his parents first refused to attend the wedding as they had arranged a marriage for him with a neighbour’s daughter. They have since accepted his faith, even joining him for Christmas Day services, but retain their own faiths.
A former soldier, Chhun Soveoun was deeply suspicious the first time he attended a church service. “I took a gun with me the first time I went to church,” he recalled.
“I was initially put off by the entire scene: the preaching on stage, the rows of people praying, people touching me on the arm and asking, ‘How are you, my brother?’”
Now, he says his new faith has made him a better person and strengthened his marriage.
“Whenever I have problems, I can reach out to Sovann and Saman for help,” he said.
Chhun Soveoun has known the two for more than a decade through the same church.
Most Cambodians, an estimated 93 percent, are Theravada Buddhists, but there is little hostility to Christianity. The UNTAC’s arrival in 1993, and the legal apparatus it constructed, opened the door for religious freedom.
The proliferation of Christian NGOs in the late 1990s paved the way for the growth and open practice of Christanity, Bin Pheap said.
Today, while Christians comprise just 2 percent of the population, there are 1,292 churches – 1,224 Protestant and 68 Catholic – according to a 2010 US State Department report on religious freedom.
“Before, people would think you were crazy to put up a Christmas tree. Now you see Christmas trees and decorations all over the city on storefronts and hotels,” Chhun Soveoun said. “It’s not common for people to have Christmas trees at home, because they’re very expensive,” Bin Pheap said. “We’ve put one up in our home for the last three years, although it’s small.”
Next to their tree is a framed group photo of hundreds of people gathered for the annual Christmas event at the Phnom Penh Church of Christ. “This is what I look forward to every year,” said Seng Saman, a 43-year-old doctor at the Centre of Hope. “We don’t tend to celebrate Christmas at home as an individual family; rather, it’s something we do as a big group in the church,” Seng Sovann explained. This year, the church has rented the National Institute of Education for a service on Christmas morning that will draw up to 700 people.
Kang Sato, a 30-year-old English teacher and volunteer program leader at the Glory Methodist Church, also converted to Christianity as a young man.
“I went because I wanted free meals and guitar lessons,” he said. A year later, he met a woman who described how she overcame the trauma of losing her daughter through prayer. Kang Sato also had a trauma: he had been abandoned by his father as a child.
“I wondered whether God would perform a miracle for me, too,” he recalled. Inspired by the story, he wrote to his father, asking him to call. Soon after, he heard from him. This was the beginning of his Christian faith, which he said “has completely changed my life”.
Most Khmer Christians are converts, but some were born into Christian families. At 64, Heng Cheng is one of the old guard of the Cambodian Christian community. The former pastor is the general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, an umbrella group for 80 percent of Christian churches and NGOs here.
Heng Cheng followed his father’s footsteps to church, but said he never understood or discovered the purpose of faith until the Khmer Rouge regime. In 1976, he fled to Vietnam, where he joined an underground Bible study group. He experienced what he describes as a “profound spiritual awakening” and became an ordained pastor. Believing that religion could play a role in his country’s rebuilding, he returned to Cambodia in 1985 and opened the Jerusalem Church.
He believes Christianity is communal and different faiths are not a barrier to rebuilding a community. He frequently meets with Buddhist and Muslim leaders at interfaith forums.
During Christmas, however, Cheng prefers to leave Cambodia to celebrate the season with his wife and four children.
“If I stay in Cambodia, people will make me travel around to deliver many Christmas sermons,” he said, adding he plans to be back in time to preach on New Year’s Eve.