Phnom Pehn Post (Cambodja), Nov. 8-21, 2002
By Caroline Green and Lon Nara
Religious tensions have been stirred up in Prey Veng province by recent letters that compare Christian groups to the Khmer Rouge.
The letters, written by a Buddhist group calling itself “The Committee of 20 Pagodas, All Clergymen and All Parishes”, claim that “in the upcoming days there will definitely be religious war”. Hundreds of people also took part in an anti-Christian protest in four Prey Veng villages in late October.
“We, the Khmer citizens throughout the Kingdom of Cambodia, propose to reject Christianity called Jesus Pol Pot Number Two, which is carrying out activities in the country every day,” the letter stated.
“Please brothers, aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, stand up in solidarity to topple the Pol Pot group, which has the underground force that makes politics disseminating deceptive news to ensure the Khmer [people] betray their own nation … their own religion.”
The letter, which was handed out to residents of four villages in the province, stated that a small group of Christian Khmers who were “crazed with US dollars” were openly criticizing Buddhism, cursing monks, and asking Christians to step on Buddha statues.
The chairman of an umbrella group of 700 Christian churches, the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia (EFC), admitted some of the problems had been caused by proselytizing Christians, but said feuding between political parties was mainly to blame.
“I am strongly against rice Christianity. I do not want people to buy other people’s faith,” said EFC’s Mam Barnabas. “I believe that some Christians do not behave well at all. The hit and run missionaries leave Cambodia after they try to buy people’s faith, and we are left behind to suffer.”
Barnabas said EFC encouraged its members not to be aggressive to those of other faiths. He explained the political motives he felt were mainly behind the letters.
“As it happened before the ASEAN summit, I think they just wanted to stir up trouble to prove Cambodia is not a place of safety, security or religious freedom,” he said. “If it is not taken care of, this cry of nationalism could mobilize more people to think negatively of Buddhism.”
He said those stirring up tensions were zealous Cambodians, but not true Buddhists, since followers of the Buddha exhibited tolerance. This was the first sign of trouble he had seen between the two religions.
The spokesperson for one proselytizing Christian NGO, Eng Muny, witnessed the protest in Prey Krang and Pichirath villages in which more than 200 locals including achars from Beng Pagoda held banners asking Christians to leave the country. The demonstrators were later dispersed by the police.
“They protested that Christians should no longer live in the village and asked them to leave,” he said. “They appealed for people to join hands to overthrow Pol Pot Number Two.”
Muny said the allegations were targeted at his organization, Kampuchea for Christ International (KFCI), but denied they were true. He said supporters of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party had instigated the protest after local Christians expressed support for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
“Christian organizations have no money to buy faith,” said Muny. However he did concede that some proselytizers had used “wrong words” and told villagers that if they believed in Christ, life would be better than if they were Buddhists.
A senior official at the Ministry of Cult and Religions (MoCR) said such trouble was very rare.
“There never are any problems between Buddhists and Christians. We are all friends. We are always meeting together,” said secretary of state In Visa Um.
However department chief Yim Youdavann said she would investigate what had happened in Prey Veng. If the ministry found there was a serious problem, it might issue an order to suspend the activities of Christian NGOs.
“I am worried that if there is no curbing [of the problem], the small problem will become bigger,” Youdavann said.
Although the letter bore the logo of the ministry’s Buddhist Institute, Miech Ponn, an assistant at the institute’s customs commission, condemned the letter and said the logo had been falsely used.
“We have never used this cheap idea, and I would like to investigate where the letter is from, and who is against Christianity,” Ponn said. “This may be a movement that could create trouble and insecurity for our country. They can create a problem [not only] between Buddhism and Christianity, but also between Buddhism and Islam.”
MoCR estimates there are 100,000 Christians throughout the country. Christian NGOs say the number of adherents is increasing steadily.