As Cambodia becomes more multi-cultural, the diversity of offerings serving the rising religious needs is increasing. Editor Marissa Carruthers takes a look at what religion means in an expat world. Photography by Charles Fox.
Prince Lenee Lahben‘s deep voice reverberates throughout the building from his third-storey office. He closes his eyes as he bellows out his sermon to the congregation watching on from a room in Siem Reap. With his preaching blasting out through a sound system, and his passionate face plastered on a plasma screen, he often reaches out to members of the Christ Embassy church in temple town with sermons via Skype.
“I can’t be in two places at one time so in this modern world Skype is a blessing,” the charismatic pastor says before outlining lively church sessions that sound more akin to a party than a Sunday service. The cheery songs, dancing and energetic delivery of the prayers sit in stark contrast to the service that takes place at the International Baptist Church. Here, bible readings are delivered in a traditional manner, with a keyboard sounding out classical hymns, and the congregation remains quiet in their own prayers.
It is also a million miles away from the small gatherings of Hindus who, in the absence of a formal temple in Phnom Penh, gather together in houses to mark religious occasions, such as Diwali. “This is the beauty of Cambodia,” says Ruth Sax, a Christian. “There is a lot of choice here when it comes to different denominations; it can open up a whole new world to you that I certainly couldn’t find at home.”
Cambodia is a country steeped heavily in religion, with about 95 percent of the population following Theravada Buddhism, and Muslim Cham and Christians predominantly making up the remainder. In recent decades, it has also proved to be tolerant towards foreigners wanting to practice their own religion. And as the country has become more of a cultural melting pot, with expats landing at a faster rate from destinations across the world, the volume and diversity of places of worship opening across the country has increased at an accelerated rate.
When the foreign aid workers and organisations started flooding into Cambodia after the Vietnamese left the country in 1992, practicing a religion other than those recognised by the state was illegal. For many who were landing in Cambodia, their faith was important and they were forced to worship undercover.
Ann Greves, pastor of International Christian Association (ICA), arrived in the Kingdom in 1991 to help set up the country’s first international school, ISPP. As a strong Christian her faith was important to her, but with no legal place to worship they were forced to secretly gather at each other’s houses for hushed prayer and bible talks on Sunday mornings. “While it wasn’t illegal for small groups of friends to meet, we would still keep it quiet,” the American says. “There was still regular gunfire on the streets and fighting, you didn’t want to take the risk.”
However, shortly after the signing of the peace treaty in 1991 and the establishment of the country’s first elections two years later, the government set about drafting the Kingdom’s constitution, which promised freedom of religion. “Everyone knew then that the law was on their side. It felt more comfortable, there wasn’t that level of fear there had been before,” recalls Greves, who came to Cambodia to help set up the first international school, ISPP.
Under the law, which remains in force today, all religious groups, including Buddhist, must receive approval from the Ministry of Cults and Religious Affairs to create places of worship and conduct religious activities. These must comply with a set of rules, including forbidding religious groups from insulting other religious groups, creating disputes and undermining national security. Places of worship must also be located at least two kilometres away from each other, and cannot be used to house criminals or fugitives or for political purposes.
This paved the way for an influx of churches setting up their roots in the Kingdom, with the UK’s Archbishop of Canterbury even writing to King Sihanouk in 1993 requesting permission for the Church of Christ Our Peace to set up in the capital. In the last decade, international congregations and offerings have been bolstered even further, thanks to the growing wave of foreigners flocking to Cambodia bringing with them their own set of beliefs and values.
“Phnom Penh is a multi-cultural city,” says Pastor Gregory Whitaker, who has been leading Church of Christ Our Peace for the last two-and-a-half years. “That can be seen in the congregations and variety of churches and religious organisations here.”
Donabelle Zuzart fell further into her faith when she moved to Cambodia from Dubai two years ago. Born into a Catholic family in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, in India, religion played a strong role in Zuzart’s upbringing. Confessing to not being a regular mass-goer, she states, “I don’t believe you need to go to church, you need to be a good human at the end of the day.”
When she swapped her life in Dubai for Cambodia, where her fiancé’s job took them, she struggled to settle. “I felt like everything crashed when I first moved,” the 33-year-old says. “I moved here for my relationship and I loved Dubai. When I moved to Dubai it was my comfort zone. When I first came here, it reminded me of India and it was hard.”
Zuzart attended a few churches in the capital but hadn’t quite found home until she stumbled across St Joseph Catholic Church Phnom Penh. It was here that Zuzart and her fiancé, who is not religious, carried out the marriage preparation course that is commonly held between engaged couples and priests ahead of a wedding. “The whole thing about church is for me, it’s peaceful,” Zuzart says. “That’s what I like about it. There’s an order that can calm you down. I feel I belong. I could do that at St Joseph’s for the first time and that was a big step forward.”
These are common reasons for foreigners relighting their religious flame or even finding faith for the first time, according to Pastor Gregory. He welcomes into his church many newcomers who are having difficulty with the transition to Cambodia, others who have been hit by reality after the six-month honeymoon period and Cambodia’s shiny new sheen has started wearing off, and some who are simply struggling to digest the poverty they have been plunged into.
Providing a strong sense of belonging is also important for Phnom Penh’s Jewish community. Every Friday and Saturday evening, The Habbad Centre hosts free services and kosher meals. These are attended by about 60 people, of which more than half are usually travelling Israelis. They represent a way of respecting the religion’s customs while providing a welcoming social setting for people to gather together.
“Community is very important and I definitely feel I have that here,” says David Benaim, who organises events at the centre. “I grew up in a very small town in Gibraltar where there is a small but strong Jewish community. I moved to London and although there was a big Jewish community there, it didn’t feel as close. When I moved here I found the opposite, it was very welcoming again.”
For Benaim, being able to live according to his beliefs was important to him, and he ensured they could be fulfilled to his satisfaction before he left for the Kingdom by researching online and contacting the rabbi for information on Jewish life in the capital. After finishing his three-month voluntary placement, Benaim decided to stay on, a decision influenced by the active Jewish community. “If the Jewish Centre had not been here then there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have stayed on,” he says. “It’s very important to me and always has been.”
For some, moving to Cambodia brings with it the opportunity to practice their faith in the way they want rather than how relatives or peers prefer them to. Sujash Ghosh describes how religion ruled his life in Kolkata and his parents and teachers would make him attend his local Hindu temple regularly for formal prayer and see it entrenched in his daily routine.
“In India, everyone follows religion pretty religiously,” the 28-year-old says. “I am from a very religious family and my parents are pretty strict when it comes to religion whereas for me, not so much.” So when he arrived in Phnom Penh in July 2012, life was very different for Ghosh. In the absence of any formal place of worship and no pressure from elders or fear of upsetting his parents, he found himself able to worship in his own individual way.
“In India, I had other people telling me what to do and how to do it,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be liberal when it comes to religion. Here I can and I can process religion in my own way. For me, it’s not about following exactly everything that is written, it’s about the way you live.”
With the Hindu calendar boasting a string of festivals, it is during the four major celebrations that Ghosh often pines for home. He trawls through stacks of colourful photos on Facebook of the faces splashed with bright powder paint during Holi festival or the streets of his homeland lit up with lights for Diwali.
But being so far from home doesn’t stop Ghosh and a small group of friends from marking the festivities in their own way by decorating one of their homes with relevant idols, gods and goddesses, gathering to chant and pray, and carry out other rituals, such as lighting candles and offering garlands and flowers. To make the ceremonies more complete, they ask anyone returning from India to bring items, such as coins of silver baring special engravings for Diwali.
Cambodia’s diversity of denominations has also led to the religious being able to explore the diverse range of services and options available to worship, from the conservative through to the funky. Pastor Prince Lenee Lahben has watched his congregation swell from a cell of five when it was sent from Nigeria to set up the Christ Embassy in Cambodia in 2006, to the current 60. He claims it’s the vigour and energy of his lively sermons that keep his audience captivated.
“People come to me and say, ‘But Pastor, I have never been to church and been able to stand up and dance. We can’t do that back home.’ They can and do in my church,” he says, following up with his signature chesty laugh.
It is that and the three-monthly Atmosphere for Miracles sessions he holds that adds appeal. Once every three months, Pastor Lahben throws open his doors to the public for miracle healing sessions. Ahead of each, Pastor Lahben fasts and spends his hours praying for patients as he gathers energy for the sessions, during which he claims to have healed the paralysed, lame and diseased “through the power of the Holy Spirit”.
Choose to believe it or not, but crowds flock to each gathering to watch the Pastor screaming his prayers as he struts on stage before placing his hand on patients’ head to alleviate them of whatever their ailment may be.
“Cambodians have been good to us,” he says. “They are welcoming to other religions, they allow us to practice, and there is a need for that. They provide us with a welcome home, and we provide a welcome home to anybody who wants one. That is what religion is all about.”