Mormon missionaries hard at work in Cambodia

Souls: Though government regulation has limited their activities, Mormonism's true believers want to instill their faith in the land of Buddhism and Pol Pot

Taipei Times/June 14, 2004
By Phnom Penh

In a land sprinkled with graceful Buddhist temples, a multitude of Mormons on their trademark bicycles are diligently working in growing numbers to deliver Cambodian souls to Jesus.

"I feel excited about doing this," said Pisey Touch, one of Cambodia's first female Mormon missionaries, as she and her partner drop in at the home of a family in a slum near Phnom Penh's steaming central rubbish dump.

"I see violence in families -- husbands beat their wives, they are poor and uneducated. If they know about the gospels, they will stop violence and follow the commandments of God," the former Buddhist said.

Touch, 24, is one of a steadily expanding battalion of Cambodian missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who have been trained by their US counterparts to take on the job of proselytizing for themselves.

Crisp White Shirts

The first Mormon missionaries hit Cambodia in 1998, the same year peace descended on a country wrecked by decades of conflict, including the 1975-79 chaos of the Khmer Rouge regime, which left up to 2 million dead and abolished religion.

Some 16 missionaries recruited 600 members that year, while today there are 96 Mormons charged with enlisting more recruits, a third of whom are Cambodian. Cambodian women also joined their ranks for the first time last year.

The church, established in the US in the 19th century, now boasts 6,400 members in the kingdom and in 2003 opened its first church building, a lavish steepled affair in downtown Phnom Penh.

The missionaries are mostly concentrated in the capital, where foreigners in crisp white shirts riding bicycles along dusty, pot-holed streets remain a novel sight for Cambodians.

'The Truth'

"After the Pol Pot regime... [Cambodians] are hungry to learn about anything. They want knowledge," mission president David Towers said, speaking at the Mormon headquarters, which was abuzz with efficient activity.

"It takes time for all traditions to change, but if you believe in Jesus Christ, you believe in Jesus Christ," he said.

The Mormons reject charges that they are overstepping any cultural boundaries by encouraging conversion in a country where more than 95 percent of the 13-million population are Buddhist.

"We firmly believe what we teach is the truth. We don't force anyone to believe ... We don't say that Buddha is wrong, we just teach our religion," Towers said.

Their drive to convert has persisted despite a ban against door-to-door proselytizing issued in February last year by a government possibly alarmed at the swelling numbers of Mormons and other Christian groups here.


"We had people coming to us to complain about the disturbances Christian groups were causing," Yem Yadavat, head of the foreign religious affairs department at the ministry of cults and religious affairs, said.

"We issued this directive to prevent conflicts that could arise between Buddhism and Christianity," she said, without specifying which groups sparked the complaints. No further complaints have been received, she said.

The various religious minorities in Cambodia, the largest of which is the estimated 700,000-strong Muslim Cham group, for the most part co-exist harmoniously in the kingdom.

The directive means recruiting drives by the Mormons are now more strongly targeted towards referred relatives and friends of current members, according to Towers, but the Mormons are still turning up unannounced at some homes.

"Wealthy, poor, middle class, they all let us into their homes. They hear us out," said 20-year-old US missionary Gordon Peer, who has been pounding the pavements here for 18 months.

"They feel something that is different, that's what makes them want to try it out." This story has been viewed 1993 times.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.