Government Orders Statue Removal, Despite Approval

City Hall has instructed the congregation of a Vietnamese temple in Phnom Penh to remove a statue of the faith’s founder from its premises, as it had not been approved and the religion does not condone the worship of idols, an official said.

A document, however, shows that the statue received explicit government approval.

cam photo statue
A statue of Ho Phap Pham Cong Tac stands in front of a Cao Dai temple in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Ho Phap Pham Cong Tac, who played a key role in establishing the Cao Dai monotheistic religion in Southern Vietnam in 1926, died in Cambodia in 1959 after establishing the temple in Chamkar Mon district’s Tumnop Toek commune. A stupawas later constructed above his grave in front of the temple.

In October last year, the Ministry of Cults and Religion approved the renovation of the stupa, which had become structurally unsound, according to deputy municipal governor Mean Chanyada. During the monthlong renovations, however, a statue of Pham Cong Tac was planted inside it without permission from the government, he said.

“Since the statue was built, it was a main source of religious conflict,” he said. The spirit of Cao Dai and the teachings of the religion’s script are all the congregation is supposed to worship, he said, making the statue’s presence “wrong.”

The temple’s committee recently wrote a letter of complaint to the ministry, asking for its intervention in removing the sculpture, he said. On Wednesday, City Hall announced that the statue must be removed by January 14 or the government will take it down, Mr. Chanyada said.

According to a copy of the renovation approval letter from the Religion Ministry provided by Doan Van Ha, 38, who maintains the stupa, however, the statue was explicitly approved as part of the new building.

Mr. Doan said the sculpture was intended to prevent the temple’s leader from selling the plot of land, rather than for worship.

Mr. Chanyada could not be reached after his initial comments to explain why City Hall was not respecting the ministry’s letter.

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