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Cambodia marks a century of Christianity

PM urges religious harmony while Theary Seng, a prominent Christian who worked on Khmer translations of the Bible, is in jail

In this photo taken on Dec. 5, 2019, a girl stands in front of a church at a floating village along the Siem Reap river in Cambodia

In this photo taken on Dec. 5, 2019, a girl stands in front of a church at a floating village along the Siem Reap river in Cambodia. (Photo: AFP)

Published: January 27, 2023 07:53 AM GMT

Updated: January 27, 2023 09:48 AM GMT

Cambodia marked a century of Christianity on Jan. 27 with Prime Minister Hun Sen pressing for harmony among all religions and requesting that the clergy refrain from forcing people to change their beliefs.

He said different denominations within Christianity had flourished in Cambodia since a 30-year civil war ended in 1998 which included the 1975-79 reign of the Khmer Rouge when all forms of religion were banned and thousands perished for their faith.

The Khmer Rouge also obliterated all 73 Catholic churches across Cambodia, tore down the Cathedral of Phnom Penh stone-by-stone and converted a neighboring Catholic cemetery into a banana plantation.

“During the time of war, religion also suffers. Look at what has happened in Ukraine. For Cambodia, thanks to peace, we are prospering,” Hun Sen said.

"We do not allow our territory to be plagued by religious conflicts"

“I have mentioned many times that racial and religious differences are not an obstacle to the nation's development. Please do not force someone to change their belief, it is impossible,” he said.

Christians are a minority in Cambodia and estimates vary widely but according to the Pew Research Center about 0.7 percent of the population are Christian, most of them Catholic.

The first Christian mission in Cambodia was undertaken by the Portuguese friar Gaspar da Crus of the Dominican order in 1555-1556 but by his own account, the mission was a complete failure.

Others followed, however, Hun Sen was referring to the arrival of the Christian Missionary Alliance in 1923, which resulted in a Khmer translation of the New Testament in 1933 and the publication of the entire Bible in 1953.

“We oppose discrimination. We do not allow our territory to be plagued by religious conflicts. Racial and religious divisions are a major catastrophe thus are not allowed in the Kingdom of Cambodia,” Hun Sen, an authoritarian leader, said.

Among Cambodia’s most prominent Christians is Theary Seng who has worked on Khmer translations of the Bible specializing in grammar and is currently serving a six-year jail sentence for treason. The Supreme Court dismissed her final appeal in October last year.

“There must be no division in the Christian community"

Hun Sen said “many countries around the world” appreciated the religious harmony in Cambodia initiated by “the right policy” of his government and called on the Christian leadership, despite their different denominations, to uphold unity, both internally and with other religions.

“This celebration also reflects the progress of religion in Cambodia. Therefore, for the cause of the nation and the people, the Royal Government supports and grants broad rights and freedoms to all religions in the kingdom,” he said.

“There must be no division in the Christian community,” he said.

He also thanked Christians for maintaining peace, their significant contribution to the fabric of Cambodian society, particularly through post-war reconstruction and more recently in combating the Covid-19 pandemic.

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