Last week’s razing of an unfinished Kandal province building that was to become a Christian church was a rare example of mob action motivated by religious tension in Cambodia, but it was not the first time tempers have flared over faith.
Last year, more than 200 angry Kompong Chhnang province villagers protested over a proposed mountaintop church because it would have overlooked a pagoda.
In 2004, a church in Prey Veng province was burned down by unknown arsonists. And in 2003, police were deployed to protect churches across Svay Rieng province after one was ransacked by a mob that blamed Christianity for a three-year drought. The mob smashed windows and furniture and threw dozens of Bibles into a nearby pond and paddy fields.
But leaders on both sides of the religious divide this week condemned the Kandal arson attack in Lvea Em district’s Boeng Krum commune, and said that Christians and Buddhists get along fine—most of the time.
“The Buddhists were right to feel concern, but not to demolish a church,” said Prince Sisowath Kola Chat, Cult and Religion Ministry secretary of state. “Both sides must be at fault,” he said.
He added that although Christian proselytizers act within their rights, public activities like riding a bicycle through the countryside with a Bible in hand may make Cambodian villagers uncomfortable.
Conflict seems to arise most around tactics used by some churches to find new converts, ranging from aggressive evangelizing to bribing churchgoers, officials said.
A 2003 Ministry of Cult and Religion directive banned public proselytizing and the dissemination of religious propaganda in public, apparently to prevent religious conflict between Buddhists and Christians. But that directive is no longer in effect and contradicted Cambodia’s Constitution anyway, according to Supreme Council of Magistracy member Son Soubert.
Sim Ne, a 25-year-old farmer who said he supported the destruction of the building that would have become a church in his village, added that he understood freedom of religion and believed that Christianity could lead people to do good things. But he nonetheless feared that the erosion of Buddhist tradition could tear the nation apart.
“It is a foreign influence in Cambodian society,” he said. “In Cambodia, Buddhism is in the middle, Islam is on the right and Christianity is on the left. If people start to convert and there is conflict between Islam and Christianity, Cambodians will die. I heard about this happening in other countries on the news.”
Many Cambodians may think of Buddhism as the national religion, but Son Soubert, who is a devout Buddhist with a Jesuit education, said religious diversity would be healthy for Buddhism.
“When there’s competition, there’s progress,” he said.
But some people worry that foreign Christian funding—if misused—means an uneven playing field in the battle for Cambodian souls.
“There are a lot of what you call ‘rice churches,’ which are churches that give rice to people just for them to come,” said Pastor Ranier of Phnom Penh’s Bethany Baptist Church, which is based in the Philippines. “We do not do that. We do not give wrong motivations for people to come to church.”
But he added that the line between Christian charity and buying conversions is not so easy to draw. “Cambodia needs a lot of help, not only in terms of the spiritual, but physical needs,” he said. “People who have empty stomachs cannot really listen, and you cannot get them to sit down.”
Cambodian preacher John Song of Phnom Penh’s Disciple of Christ Fellowship said his church would never bribe potential converts, but engages them through free education. “We open a school for English- or Korean-language class…and then during the classes we also spread the gospel,” he said.
But his church only has members between the ages of 15 and 27, mostly high school and university students from the provinces, which leaves a hole in the congregation. “I need adults,” Song said. “I say that if you love your parents and neighbors, you have to convert them.”
Several people said that young converts, rather than seasoned foreign missionaries, are the most determined proselytizers.
“I appreciate what they are doing, becoming aggressive, because they know that a Cambodian without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ will spend an eternity in Hell,” Ranier said.
Cambodians may be freer to push their faith on others because foreigners are always seen as outsiders and struggle with cultural and language barriers, he added.
But Father Bob, parish priest of Phnom Penh’s Saint Joseph’s Catholic church, said Catholics prefer not to proselytize, instead welcoming people to their faith if they come on their own, which assures better relationships with the Buddhist community.
“I heard sometimes [Christians] are going to villages in a car, talking about Jesus, going slowly through the streets,” he added. “For us, the Catholics, we don’t do it in that way.”
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