Mormon missionaries Elder Yi, left, Elder Spencer and Elder Tay in front of their almost-completed "meeting place" on Street 63 in Phnom Penh.
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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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
Francois Ponchaud, an observer of religion in Cambodia since 1965, is a little more
"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
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
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"
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
It has been another good day for the Mormons.
Religion in Cambodia by numbers
New Apostolic Church
Faith in Christ
Aprox Christian total
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
-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