Religion 'not the cause' of Christian building's burning

Phonm Penh, Cambodia - Religion was not the cause of a 300-strong Buddhist mob's attack on an unfinished Christian church, a government official said on Wednesday.

"The dispute between the Buddhist villagers and the Christians was not a religious war," said Khon Dara, deputy director of the Ministry of Cults and Religious Affairs.

The destruction of the Wesleyan-owned building in Boeng Krum Commune, Lvea Em District in Kandal Province by a "Buddhist mob" on April 28 should not be considered a result of religious tensions; it was merely a violent eruption of internal village politics, Dara said.

"A verbal dispute had been going on for many years between the villagers," he said. "This was what led to violence."

Religious persecution is rare in Cambodia, said David Manfred, Christian and Missionary Alliance country director, as "in most parts of Cambodia there is religious freedom and people are able to practice their faith."

But Christianity is "new and unfamiliar to Cambodian culture and traditions," he explained, which could cause "misunderstandings" within multi-faith communities.

This could create "isolated locations and situations where, for a variety of reasons, Christians suffer persecution," he said.

About 95 percent of Cambodians are Buddhist, but Catholic, Protestant, and other Christian sects also exist, Dara said, but "generally there is no tension between them."

In the case of the April 28 attack, local Christians argued that village dwellers' religious affiliations were manipulated by secular locals to suit their own ends.

"Several laymen, who were not happy with the Christians, bought wine for teenagers in the village to drink" said Pa Sami, a member of the village's Christian community. "They incited those teenagers to lead the protest and encouraged them to burn down our house."

Van Sotha, clerk for the commune chief, told the Post on May 3 that the attack was unprecedented in the commune. The villagers had always been tolerant of other faiths, she said, but construction of a second church just 700 meters from the commune's only Buddhist pagoda, and the disregard of local opposition to the building, caused simmering village tensions to erupt along religious faultlines.

"The villagers warned the Christians not to construct the building near the Buddhist pagoda," she said. "There is one Buddhist pagoda in the commune. Locals questioned why the Christian religion should have more than one place of worship."

(The Post understands the other place of worship in the village is used by a different Christian sect.)

The construction of the new church building polarized tension in the village into faith-based camps. But the swift resolution of the dispute - without any recourse to legal wrangling - demonstrates that for both the Buddhist and Christian members of the community, it was always a local argument, not the beginning of a religious crusade, Sotha said.

"Both sides made a mistake," she said. "The Christians decided not to file a complaint against the protesters and did not ask for compensation for their property."

Some villagers swiftly repented their hot-tempered actions, said Sami, and came to the Christian community to apologize and seek forgiveness. The two sides were able to resolve the problem amicably.

"They said they had misunderstood the situation and agreed we should stop arguing," she said. "We agreed not to ask for compensation, nor to punish them."

Moreover, many Buddhists in the village had no sympathy for the mob's actions. A village man, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, said he refused to participate in the protest as it was contrary to Buddhist philosophy.

"Some mob members were drunk; Buddhists are not allowed to drink," he said. "It is a bad deed to tear down and set fire to any house. Many Buddhist people in our commune are not happy with the actions of those people."