The Ministry of Cults and Religions has issued a directive seeking to curb the influence of Christian evangelicals in Cambodia and banning people from door-to-door proselytizing, officials said Monday.
The statement, dated June 26 and released Friday, says religious literature can only be distributed inside religious institutions, adding that proselytizing by visiting door-to-door is banned because “it disturbs people’s daily lives and affects security in society.”
All religious buildings must be explicitly authorized before being built, and “it is prohibited to use money or materials and other means in order to convince people to convert,” the statement reads.
Those who violate the directive will be “educated about their mistakes” and may risk prosecution, according to the statement from the ministry.
Sun Kim Hun, secretary of state at the Ministry of Cults and Religions, said that while the statement pertains to all religions, it is aimed primarily at Christians.
He said the directive—which reiterates points outlined in similar directives issued in 1999 and 2003—was written in response to reports of Christians tricking children and turning them against Buddhism in Battambang and Siem Reap provinces.
Christians in those areas were offering candy and cakes to children as enticement to convert, Sun Kim Hun claimed. “The children don’t know people gave them candy and cakes to convert them to Christianity,” he said.
“If a religion forces people to convert through money or material goods or knocking on doors, it is wrong. It is disturbing the people and abusing people’s privacy,” he said.
Sun Kim Hun also maintained that the growing influence of Christianity in Cambodia could obliterate the country’s Buddhist heritage.
“I am 100 percent concerned that if they [entice people to convert], it will affect Buddhism,” he said.
Cambodia’s Christian minority for the most part lives in peace with the majority Buddhists, but the relationship is not without its tensions.
Angry mobs of Buddhists leveled an unfinished building destined to become a church in Kandal province last year as well as a church house in Prey Veng province in 2004. Buddhist villagers also ransacked a church house in Svay Rieng province in 2003, blaming Christians for a three-year drought.
Omer Giraldo, a Catholic priest and director of the Catholic Social Communication Center in Phnom Penh, said Monday that he thinks the ministry’s new directive is on the right track. “In the Catholic church, we have the custom not to do any proselytizing,” he said.
He estimated that there are more than 50,000 Christians in Cambodia, about half of whom are Catholics, adding that the numbers are growing: About 150 people convert to Catholicism each year, he said.
“We do not see tension [between Buddhism and Christianity]…but maybe some groups are pushing too much,” he said.
But Nhean Song, pastor at the Union Church, said he thinks the directive stems from a general fear of Christianity among Buddhist officials. “They don’t want Christianity to grow,” he claimed.
Nhean Song’s Presbyterian church receives support from South Korea and has branches in Phnom Penh and Kandal province, accounting for nearly 350 worshippers.
Nhean Song said his church gives a little food at times to worshippers. “It is not to attract them to church. We just give because of love of Jesus Christ,” he said.
On Monday, Nhean Song was teaching a free English course to a group of about 15 teenagers at his church on Street 163. He said he invites students to join in prayer on Sundays.
“We cannot force them, we just invite them,” he said.
John Walton, who manages the service center for the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, said the Mormon Church, which has been in Cambodia since 1994, adjusted its policies years ago to adhere to Cambodia’s specific guidelines.
Mormon missionaries, often seen bicycling through town with helmets, crisp white shirts and square black nametags, are well aware that it’s already against the rules to knock on doors, he said.
“We are not trying to break any laws…and we typically do not have trouble [with] the government,” he said.
There are more than 20 congregations in Cambodia comprising about 7,000 members, and Walton said the growth of Mormonism in Cambodia is steady.
The Mormon Church is careful not to distribute aid, he said.
“It fosters a culture of dependence which I personally do not think is appropriate,” he said. “We teach self-reliance…. There is plenty of dependence in the developing world without adding to it.”
Simon Valenvuela, from the Philippines, who directs the Christian Fellowship in Siem Reap, said that his nondenominational humanitarian organization distributes food to children because they need it.
“Malnutrition is one of the problems,” he said. “In order to help the problems, we feed the children…. The purpose is not to entice them.”
Once the children arrive, the center provides what Valenvuela calls “integration of Christian values,” which entails Bible classes, courses on Christian ethics and an opportunity to thank God for what they have been given.
But converting to Christianity is not an imperative, he said, emphasizing that his organization is not a church.
“They don’t have to become Christian,” he said, “but some do and that’s their choice.”