“Freedom of religion is a genuine thing in Cambodia,” Ann Marie Grove, the Assemblies of God director in Phnom Penh, said last August, and evangelical Christians in Cambodia have long felt secure in that sentiment.
But freedom of religion does not always mean only the freedom to choose one’s belief sometimes it means the freedom to expose others to that belief.
Now the Ministry of Cults and Religion wants to do away with that second interpretation.
Recently, the ministry issued a new “disciplinary order” regulating the activities of “outside religions.” The directive mainly targets proselytism a motivation for thousands of Christians who leave behind comfortable lives in hopes of improving the lives of those less well-off, those who also probably are not Christian.
A translation of the directive begins by stating its intention of preventing religious conflict. Then farther down: “All public proselytizing activities are prohibited. Christians are not allowed to proselytize citizens’ houses by knocking on doors or waiting for them, saying “the Lord is coming” which is an interruption to daily life or may intrude on privacy in the community.”
And then: “Teachings of religions must respect other religions and avoid insulting and degrading each other, especially Buddhism, the state religion.”
Minister of Cults and Religion Chea Savoeun said last week that the new directive is a prudent move. “People have complained a lot to the Ministry of Cults and Religion over this issue,” he said, adding that some Christian groups have been accused of “looking down” on other religions and disturbing people in their homes.
Yem Yadavat, the director of Foreign Religious Affairs at the Ministry of Cults and Religion agreed. “I think that both the people and the government need to regulate the activities of foreign churches. We have to regulate all types of religion to avoid any problems,” she said.
Regulations, in Yem Yadavat’s opinion, do not infringe on religious freedom. “If we are talking about the freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Constitution, people have the right to select their own religion,” she said.
Article 43 of the Constitution states that Cambodians “shall have the right to freedom of belief. Freedom of religious belief and worship shall be guaranteed by the State on the condition that such freedom does not affect other religious beliefs or violate public order and security.”
For some evangelical Christians, however, practicing their own religion entails trying to affect other religious beliefs. Spreading the teachings of the Bible is a central tenet of their faith. It is the Great Commission, a duty handed down by Jesus in the Bible’s Book of Matthew.
But methods of evangelism vary. Grove said she tries to spread Christianity through the way she lives, trying to show kindness. “Perhaps some Christians have defined [evangelism] too narrowly, thinking it means only what they say, like people preaching on street corners,” she said.
Its not clear exactly which groups have upset locals and the Ministry of Cults and Religion. No one is owning up to any offenses, and Yem Yadavat said directing blame is not important.
Tep Vong, the supreme patriarch of the Mohanikaya sect of Buddhism, said he supports the new directive.
“All religions do not take advantage of others, but all religions should first ask permission of local authorities before they construct a church or carry out any activities,” he said.
He went on to claim that some foreign religious groups would get permission for one thing and then do another.
Michael Collins, the country director for the Cambodia Christian Methodist Association, said he was not too surprised by the new directive. He suggested that it could have been initiated by Buddhists who are concerned by the spread of Christianity, which he said has grown from 0.6 percent to 1.1 percent of the population in the past year.
“The government wants to have freedom of religion, but not too free,” he said with a hint of resignation.
Collins said his organization does very little door-to-door work, choosing instead for its Cambodian members to introduce Christianity to relatives and acquaintances. He also spoke of the importance of making Christianity fit within local culture. He said he had been meeting with Cambodian church coordinators to ensure their members were respectful of non-Christians and behaved humbly.
Collins also said there might be concern that his church is “buying people’s souls, because we do offer them help.” He said the Methodist association offers English instruction, computer instruction and agricultural education because it wants to “care for the whole person.”
Christian churches and organizations have contributed massive sums of money and humanitarian aid to Cambodia. World Vision, a Christian organization that provides a wide variety of humanitarian services, spends about $9 million a year on Cambodia, according to its country director, Talmage Payne.
Payne said the majority of World Vision’s staff is not Christian. He also said World Vision has specific policies that prohibit proselytizing, such as not distributing aid based on the beliefs of recipients.
In response to questions about an employee who had complained of being compelled to present aid as a gift from God and not World Vision, Payne said, “The reason we do what we do is our way of expressing Christ’ love for the world.”
He added that he felt it was important for World Vision to be up front about its identity and motivation.
“I don’t think [the new directive] affects us at all,” he went on to say. “We are a Christian organization, but we are here to do long term development work.”
Payne also said he understood the government’s concern that Christian organizations act appropriately. “I think if there are Christian organizations here, and they are blurring that distinction [between evangelism and humanitarian work], I don’t think it is particularly helpful to their interests,” he added.
The most visible missionaries in Cambodia are probably the young Mormons who can often be seen riding bicycles around town.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as their organization is officially known, also contributes a number of services, mostly to non-Mormons, plus about $1.5 million a year to the local economy, according to it’s local head, President John Colton.
Colton said he was surprised by the new directive. “We choose not to comment publicly, but we have always enjoyed a good relationship with the Ministry of Cults and Religion…. We hope [the directive] will not affect the Church’s operation and its humanitarian work,” he said.
Colton said that his missionaries rarely go to people’s homes uninvited. About 80 percent of local converts came to the Latter-Day Saints through referrals, he said.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, another missionary group in the country, are well known for aggressive evangelizing. Vern Eldish, their country director, declined to comment on the new directive, saying only, “We are waiting for some direction.”
He also declined to comment on the number of foreign Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country and on their evangelical practices.
The official Jehovah’s Witnesses Web site says, “Today, where it is possible, Jehovah’s Witnesses endeavor to call at each home several times a year…”
The site goes on to say that the missionaries will offer religious tracts to the residents and might offer to return or arrange a Bible study, free of charge.
“It seems like the measure [against proselytism] was taken as the result of the experiences and observations in the past. It seems that some of the churches are quite aggressive and sometimes they might create tensions among Cambodians,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, on Thursday.
But she added that she did not think the Constitution and the new directive were enough to ensure religious harmony in Cambodia. She said she would like to see open and respectful dialogue between leaders of all the country’s religions.
How the new directive will be enforced remains to be seen. The Ministry of Cults and Religion has not always enjoyed the support of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
After Sept 11, 2001, the ministry tried to forbid the meeting of Muslims in mosques for political purposes. Hun Sen promptly struck down that order and admonished Chea Savoeun for overstepping his authority.
Several foreign religious organizations have said that their lawyers are examining the directive to assess its legality and how it could affect their activities. A member of one group said the directive might be contested at higher, friendlier levels of government.