sa’ang district, Kandal province – The raised, narrow road to Wat Phnom Sa’ang acts as a bridge during the rainy season. Several kilometers from Damrey Chhlong village, the hilltop pagoda sits among flooded rice fields for half the year.
But the road that connects Wat Sa’ang Phnom to its followers gave way to last year’s flooding. In need of money for repairs, Thong Mer, the pagoda’s head monk, turned to a new and generous presence in the community: followers of the Bahai religion.
“I asked them to help the pagoda, to give a boat and to fill up the road,” said Thong Mer, 83.
Many villagers like Thong Mer, who practice Cambodia’s predominant religion of Buddhism, are happy to take advantage of the benefits offered by Bahais. Followers of Bahai do not discount the beliefs of Buddhism, and unlike Christians, they do not require its followers to stop worshipping other religions.
Since the mid-1990s, the number of followers of Bahai has grown from just a handful in a 10-square km area here to more than 500, Bahai followers claim. The faith teaches the oneness of religion, the equality of men and women and that world peace is inevitable.
Money spent by foreign Bahai followers on job skills training and English classes, on flood relief, on free dental checkups and on frequent parties has brought locals into regular contact with Bahai beliefs. Twenty foreigners have been making the one-hour drive from Phnom Penh on weekends for years, locals said.
“They have given me sewing training skills and taught me English,” said one teen-age girl in Sa’ang. “People who join Bahai usually become less shy than before.”
The welcome reception Bahai has received illustrates Cambodia’s religious tolerance and lingering need for development. Most villagers talked appreciatively about the parties and field trips given to their children. But all spoke of the extra education being provided to the community.
“My 12-year-old daughter joined them for parties and for dancing,” said 40-year-old Phuong Phara as he sat in the shade near Wat Sa’ang Phnom. “They make the children happy and they educate them.”
Nationwide, there are approximately 4,000 Bahai believers, according to Mehran Chinniah, a Malaysian who lives in Phnom Penh and has been working on behalf of the Bahai faith in Cambodia since the mid-1990s. Most are in Kandal and Battambang provinces and in Phnom Penh, and most have converted in the last 10 years. Some scattered Cambodians believed in Bahai as far back as the 1950s, according to Chinniah. Others learned about the faith at Thai border camps in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Bahai faith was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by a Persian nobleman named Bahaullah. He claimed to be a messenger of God and likened himself to Buddha, Judaism’s Abraham and Moses, Christianity’s Jesus and Islam’s Mohammed. Bahais combine the theologies of these and other religions and believe that Bahaullah is the latest of a long line of prophets who have preached about the same God.
“We believe that religious truth is not absolute, but relative. One God sent many messengers,” said Chinniah. For example, “Bahaullah says if you don’t accept Christ, then you don’t accept me.”
Since the 1850s, Bahai has grown to encompass more than 6 million believers in more than 200 countries. They claim to have the second most widespread faith in the world, surpassing every religion but Christianity in its geographic reach.
The Bahai religion does not have clergy, sermons or formal rituals. It has just a handful of “Houses of Worship” worldwide where followers of Bahai and any other religions can meet to discuss spiritual matters. Bahais are expected to pray, either on their own or in a group, at least once a day.
Principles of the faith include the elimination of prejudice, the reduction of poverty, universal education, the harmony of science and religion and the independent investigation of truth. They believe in a world commonwealth of nations and eventual global integration, and have set up one of their main offices near the UN in New York.
A small two-story building in Sa’ang, set next to rice paddies and referred to as The Bahai Institute, is the site for the classes and celebrations, including the recent Bahai New Year party. A portrait of Bahaullah hangs on the wall, above school desks and bookshelves.
Eighty to 100 children learn English and Khmer literature through “moral education” classes. There are 14 teachers in Sa’ang, all of whom are Bahai followers. But students do not have to be believers.
“We are open to all,” said Kim Yon, a 38 year-old Bahai adherent. “The small children are very keen to learn English.”
But several Bahai followers in Sa’ang district said they still go to the local Buddhist pagoda.
Thong Mer, for one, was doubtful that Bahais had as many as 500 true followers in the area.
“It is very hard to say whether they still believe in Buddhism or not,” said Tho Snguon, Thong Mer’s assistant. “Some people just go there to study English.”
Minister of Cults and Religion Chea Savoeun said Buddhism remains strong in Cambodia, with more than 95 percent of the population practicing the religion. He said people who choose to convert usually become Christian. And those who do convert usually do for economic reasons, he said.
When Him Sophun graduated from Takhmau High School in 1993, he was not able to find a job. He continued to study on his own and began reading Bahai literature. In 1995, he got a job with the Bahais and now facilitates the training and education in Sa’ang district.
“Ninety percent of the people here are farmers,” he said. “Women can get a job in a garment factory, but it is very difficult for a man to find a job.”
Ea Sopheap, 37, also serves the Bahai faith in Sa’ang district as a member of one of the local boards. He learned about the faith at a Thai border camp, where he also was taught dentistry.
These days, he goes house by house, giving free dental treatment with supplies sent from Phnom Penh by the Bahai national organization, the National Spiritual Assembly. Ea Sopheap still goes to the Buddhist pagoda, but he also believes that Bahai will continue to grow in his homeland.
“Bahais want to bring mankind together, and Cambodia has suffered a long time,” said Ea Sopheap. “So when people hear our message of unity, they respond.”