Members of the United Methodist Church of Cambodia held their last worship service in Phnom Penh Thursday morning shortly before military police enforced an eviction notice issued by Supreme Court President Dith Munty late last month.
The parish’s expulsion followed the judge’s ruling that land purchased by the US-based church is the rightful property of its Cambodian national representative Pitou Lao, who is also a US citizen.
Dith Munty’s decision was made in a private meeting with the plaintiff, Pitou Lao said.
“We are unsure about whether the case is being dealt with following the letter of law,” said Michael Keller, the US Embassy’s economic and commercial officer. “It’s a potential concern I’d have to mention to American investors.
“What would set a precedent is having a transparent legal system,” he said, adding that the embassy is not taking sides.
The ruling follows a two-year battle over property rights between the UMC and Pitou Lao, a former church missionary and the church’s land title holder.
The UMC claims ownership of the valuable 2,256 square-meters of land on Street 271, but Pitou Lao said he is the rightful holder, since the property was purchased in his name.
The dispute illustrates some of the problems of land sales, and the subsequent seizure possibly faced by many land owners in a country where ownership records are often questionable and a land law has only recently been implemented.
Foreign companies looking to invest in Cambodia must entrust property to a Cambodian national, making real estate deals a matter of faith, a legal expert said.
This should not be a problem for most, said Senaka Fernando, chairman of the British Business Association of Cambodia, since “legitimate businesses don’t try to own the land, they lease it.”
Article 44 of the Constitution requires property owners to be Cambodian citizens or Cambodian legal entities to own property. The UMC is registered in Cambodia as a foreign NGO.
UMC Country Director Michael Collins said he thought he had carried out the proper procedures by registering as an NGO through the Ministry of Cults and Religions. “[But] based on this arrangement, it sounds like the church did not go through the process of making itself a Khmer legal entity,” the legal expert said.
Pitou Lao, however, could provide no written documentation of his ownership rights, except letters from the ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Cults and Religions declaring that he has the “right to spread the gospel,” he said.
Pitou Lao said the UMC of Cambodia is different from that of the UMC in New York. The UMC name is owned by the General Board of Global Ministries, while Pitou Lao seeks to maintain control of the local entity because it belongs to the Cambodian people, he said. But Minister of Cults and Religions Chea Savoeun said the church is the legal owner of the land, not Pitou Lao.
Using funds from the General Board of Global Ministries, Pitou Lao purchased the land in 1998 for $250,000, registering it as the Cambodian Christian Methodist Association with the Ministry of Cults and Religion, Collins said.
The contract named Pitou Lao the legal representative. Pitou Lao signed a letter in August 1998 stating that the land belonged to the church, not him, and the Phnom Penh Municipal Court made a final ruling in 2001 that Pitou Lao could be replaced with another Cambodian representative.
Pitou Lao appealed the decision and was renamed the representative and land holder. The Supreme Court overrode a notice of eviction issued by the Appeals Court in October 2001, declaring that the church would keep the land until a final decision was made.
In an unexpected turn of events, Dith Munty signed a letter Dec 19 that ordered the eviction. Dith Munty was unavailable for comment Thursday.
The UMC choir, many of them kneeling in prayer, trembled Thursday as military police pushed through the compound’s iron gates and escorted Pitou Lao and his wife, Sally, into their new offices. Military police tromped around the empty offices conducting an investigation of the building’s condition.
Military police at the scene Thursday said they carried no court order to evict the church but were following the order of Municipal Court Prosecutor Sok Roeun. They forced parishioners from the compound and padlocked the gates. “We offer this building to be used for the Cambodian people,” Pitou Lao said.
In 1998 Pitou Lao broke from the UMC and founded the Cambodian Methodist Council, a center for spiritual and physical development.
Pitou Lao said his church is the umbrella organization under which the UMC exists. The Council therefore is the rightful owner of the disputed property, he said.
Pitou Lao invited all denominations to join his church, but asked the Methodist parishioners to leave the premises indefinitely Thursday.
“I’m not sure when I’ll invite them back,” Pitou Lao said. The Council’s executive committee must first meet to decide if and when they will open the church’s doors to its old parishioners, he said.