Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution, but while the
help that Christian NGOs give to the poor is appreciated, officials want the way
aid is given to be transparent and kept apart from proselytizing activities.
Thick, toffee-colored, mud clogs every path in impoverished Anlong Gong, the relocation
site for victims of last November's Bassac commune fire.
Catholic priest Father Jim Noonan: God's love is unconditional.
The community's village chief Kim Sam Ath, who was appointed temporarily by the municipality,
says most of the 2,000 residents are unemployed. Some have no food and there is no
health center for the sick. Yet these issues are not the reason he recently wrote
to the government seeking help.
"Nowadays my community has a problem about religion," he says.
Village leaders state that religious groups, calling themselves Cooperative Services
International (CSI), are trying to attract children by taking them out of class,
giving them books and presents, and singing songs.
"They tell the children that if they believe in God, if they are short of anything,
then God will help them," Sam Ath says.
A glance at the relocation site reveals it is substantially short of most things,
which is why Sam Ath says he is happy to receive practical help. However he does
object to Christian organizations proselytizing to children.
"We are concerned about the children because they are very young," Sam
Ath says. "Why do groups teach them about Christianity? It will make their brains
Marc Hall, CSI's human and health development supervisor, is aware that people attribute
the actions of other groups to CSI and says he "wishes" others wouldn't
use CSI's name. He says the NGO is a Christian organization but denies accusations
Kouch Reachany, 14, from Anlong Gong, says she is 'half Christian, half Buddhist'.
"What we do is try to give [aid] as fairly as possible," he says. "We
don't force anyone to become Christians. If they ask me why I'm there I'll tell them
about my faith, but it is a personal conviction."
Hall says the government was distributing rice unfairly at Anlong Gong and the poorest
were missing out, so CSI now deals directly with each family instead of going through
the village chief. He believes this has annoyed Sam Ath and may be the reasoning
behind the complaint.
CSI works closely with UN Habitat, whose advisor Peter Swan says CSI has been very
helpful at the site, providing much-needed wells and sanitation services. Swan also
says Cambodians are more than capable of making their own choices about religion.
"I think Khmer people are pretty resistant to efforts to brainwash them into
a particular creed and abandon their religion for a water pump or iron roof,"
However the accusations against the NGOs apparently using CSI's name at Anlong Gong
highlight the biggest criticism leveled at Christian NGOs and missionaries: that
they are bribing the poor to change faiths.
Dr Vira Avolakita is a former Methodist minister who became a Buddhist monk 30 years
ago. He strongly believes that all Christian NGOs working in Cambodia aim to convert
those they help, and that people who do not have enough food and money to survive
may not feel they have a choice in which faith to follow.
"I'm not against any Christian NGO that helps people just through love, but
I'm against the underhanded, fraudulent conversion through food and gifts,"
he says. "This is rice-bowl Christianity, the biggest sin of the last century.
They convert people through the stomach."
Maryknoll AIDS Hospice resident Neat Thavy says she is well cared for and has got a lot stronger since she has been there.
About 90 percent of the population follow the state religion, Buddhism, but the Ministry
of Cult and Religions estimates there are now around 100,000 Christians in Cambodia
with the number increasing every year.
Freedom of religion is enshrined in Article 43 of the Constitution, and Minister
of Cult and Religions Chea Savoeun says there is religious tolerance "as long
as people don't disseminate propaganda that affects people".
A 1999 inter-ministerial circular stipulates that 'foreign religions' should not
use 'money, materials or any means' to attract people to converting to another religion.
It also bans teaching Khmer children religions other than Buddhism without consent.
Savoeun says the complaints he is investigating from Anlong Gong are the first he
has received about Christian NGOs anywhere in the country.
"When any organization comes to lure children under 18 into religion by giving
money and gifts it is illegal," he says. "I will not allow them to do this.
I will close them down."
Of the approximately 120 international NGOs listed with the Cooperation Committee
for Cambodia, well over a quarter are overtly Christian in ethos. The Post spoke
to representatives from many Christian organizations about their philosophies: all
say they help people regardless of religion and never deliberately use gifts to encourage
Maryknoll is a Catholic mission group that has worked in Cambodia since 1989. In
its hospice for HIV/AIDS sufferers in Phnom Penh, a quilted wall-hanging depicts
a Christian cross, a lotus flower symbolizing Buddhism, and the star and crescent
moon of Islam.
The organization works with "those living on the margins of society" and
has both Christian and Buddhist staff. Father Jim Noonan is clear about Maryknoll's
philosophy of helping people regardless of religion.
"Conversion is something a person does in the depths of their own heart with
the Creator," he says. "It is God's work to save people's souls - people
have no power to give salvation."
Father Noonan firmly believes the whole message of Christianity is that God loves
"The bag of rice or whatever service we give shouldn't have strings attached,"
he says. "People who try to manipulate miss the much greater opportunity of
just loving and serving people."
The Assemblies of God (AOG) is a Christian NGO carrying out both "church work"
and "development work" and has a different philosophy on conversion than
Interim moderator Ann Greve stresses that her organization helps all people regardless
of religion, race or ethnic background. Like Father Noonan, she believes that giving
rice or gifts to people if they will believe in Jesus is manipulation, not conversion.
However AOG does aim to transform those it helps.
"As Christians we want to share that with others as part of holistic work,"
Greve says. "Conversion is one of our aims, but it is through free choice and
not in the context of manipulation."
Greve says that AOG's stance is not at all disrespectful to Buddhism, but is "putting
Christianity as an option in a free choice society".
"If people see and experience genuine love they may choose to believe. Faith
is a very personal thing and you cannot force the issue," she says.
But other groups have different priorities - Food for the Hungry International-Cambodia
(FHI) is a child sponsorship organization that "encourages people to become
Country director Rikio Kimura says it helps the poorest and doesn't discriminate
against Buddhists, but acknowledges that one of the five main strategies is conversion.
"We want to see conversion but it is up to God. We don't push people into it,"
he says. "If they become Christians we believe they can go to heaven. I want
to see people saved."
He admits that NGOs are in a position of power, but maintains that FHI does not have
a strategy to use gifts as a tool for conversion.
"I don't deny that people may feel that they should become Christian,"
Groups like FHI are relatively small, but even one of the world's largest NGOs, the
Christian organization World Vision, is open to accusations of bias.
World Vision states that it never uses aid to manipulate or convert, saying it aims
"to benefit all needy people in target communities ... irrespective of their
religious background and without any expectation or inducement to respond to the
But the NGO expects all leadership team members, program managers and operation managers
to be Christians. Its most recent job advertisements require each applicant for such
positions to be a "strongly committed Christian, with evidence of mature faith".
The NGO's country director Talmage Payne defends the policy and says this is not
discrimination, but is required to protect the organization's identity.
"We are a Christian organization, and part of protecting those identities and
values is to have leaders that support the values," he says.
And more radical groups do exist: Kampuchea for Christ International (KFCI), for
example, clearly aims to convert through provision of aid. It has been training pastors
and church leaders since 1995 and also runs development programs. The first line
of its website proclaims: "Kam-
puchea for Christ. Reaching a broken people with the message of salvation."
It goes on to explain clearly the methods used to introduce Christ to Cambodians,
saying that hundreds of church members bring friends and relatives to KFCI's mobile
"Along with their treatment, villagers receive the message of salvation. Many
come to salvation through these clinics." It goes on to state: "Wells and
treadle pumps are great evangelistic tools that open the hearts of Buddhists to the
claims of Christ, while helping improve the quality of life."
Back in Anlong Gong it is clear that this sort of message is having an impact. Fourteen-year-old
Kouch Reachany is taken to church every Sunday where she sings songs and reads the
Bible alongside other converts.
"When the Jesus group came here I joined them and I was baptized," she
Reachany is not sure which organization takes her to church, but says they feed her
when she attends the services.
"Every three weeks I'm given three packets of noodles and two kilos of rice.
Sometimes my family doesn't have any food," she says. "If we go to church
we are given food, if not we aren't. Now I'm 50-50, half Buddhist, half Christian."
And she expects that in a few weeks time she will have converted fully to Christianity.
Reachany's father, Som Mab, is not that troubled.
"I don't feel there is anything wrong with it, because the children want to
go and society wants to help them," he says. "Jesus Christ gives books
and food to them, and I don't object to that."
Those involved in the issue say they have no problem with assistance - it is simply
the methods behind such help that causes concern. In countries like Cambodia, with
widespread poverty and inadequate services, there are opportunities for NGOs that
proselytize to abuse the needs of the people.
Minister Chea Savoeun, village chief Sam Ath, Dr Vira Avolakita and many others agree
that help for the poor is much needed, and appreciate the work Christian NGOs perform.
They simply want the way it is done to be transparent and kept separate from religious
"Being an NGO means they help people," says Savoeun. "But if NGOs
are involved in Christianity they must ask permission from us to open churches. If
not, then that is wrong."