Sunday, December 27, 2015

New Christians Celebrating Christmas in Cambodia

By: Olivia Harlow
Produced & Edited by: Olivia Harlow 

At last Sunday’s annual Christmas-themed church service at the Phnom Penh Church of Christ, Christmas lights decorated the stage, teens reenacted the Bible’s Nativity scene, and a preacher dressed as Santa flung candy into the air.
The congregation was packed with hundreds of Cambodians and several expats. One of the attendants was 24-year-old Phally Ken.
Ms. Ken, who started attending church services in 2013 and was baptized this July, is one of many Cambodians who recently converted to Christianity and celebrated Christmas for the first time this year.
“This Sunday is the first time Christmas has meaning to me,” said Ms. Ken, adding that although she’s attended church for two years, this is her first “real” Christmas. “This year I feel it, I am thankful for it.”

Cambodians gathered after school at the Phnom Penh Church of Christ on Christmas at a party that included various games, dancing, and a massive Christmas feast. 

To celebrate, Ms. Ken—who currently works full-time as a hotel receptionist and part-time as an English teacher—made paper snowflakes with her students, bought herself champagne and chocolates, and attended multiple Bible studies this week with friends.
Additionally, on Christmas Day, she attended a party at church, with dancing, games, a huge feast and a gift exchange.
Ms. Ken said she used to be Buddhist, and that when she first started attending church, she was still unsure of her religious beliefs. She explained that because she comes from a family with “no love”, the compassion she found in the church helped her to feel whole.
After speaking with different pastors and studying the Bible more closely, Ms. Ken said that she became convicted.
Sothea Ket—unlike Ms. Ken, who no longer visits pagodas or practices Buddhism—said that although he too attends the Phnom Penh Church of Christ and considers himself Christian, he also still believes in Buddhism.
“Both Christianity and Buddhism are the same in some ways. It’s interesting. For me, it’s not picking which one is better. It’s whichever one helps me and gives good advice for my life,” he said, adding that he feels rejecting Buddhism altogether is ignoring his cultural roots. “These people who are pure Christian become Western. You know, Asian culture is Buddhist.”
Uong Vibol—former pastor and founder of the National Christian Churches Network Council of Cambodia—doesn’t religiously practice Buddhism, but agrees that it’s important to appreciate its cultural aspects.

Cambodians teens participated in a dance contest at the Phnom Penh Church of Christ's Christmas party. 

“I think it’s part of Cambodian culture. We are Christian, but still Cambodian,” he said, adding that he believes practicing in worship is much different than practicing culturally. “For me, as a learner and seeker, although Buddhism is not the true God, he is a good philosopher and a good teacher.”
In recent years this attitude towards Buddhism and Christianity in Cambodia has become much more accepted, yet according to Khon Dara—Deputy Director of Ministry of Cult and Religion—only about 2 percent of Cambodia’s population identity as Christian.
That said, Mr. Dara explained that very few churches—all within Phnom Penh city limits—existed in Cambodia in the 1990s, and today there are over 1,397 registered churches nationwide.
According to Mr. Vibol, the number of Christians has also increased since the 1990s, when only about .075 percent of Cambodians were Christian.
Mr. Vibol has been an active Christian for 30 years now and said that recently he’s personally witnessed about two or three people be baptized in his church community each month.
“More people open their heart and understanding today, especially young people,” he said, adding that he sees children and teens getting more involved in youth groups and Bible studies. “They come to understand Christianity, sharing the Gospel, and they still have a choice. They choose it.”
Even though the number of Cambodian Christian believers remains relatively small, their faith is strong.
“I am not broken in heart anymore,” said Ms. Ken, adding that she used to not know the meaning of happiness. “I was born again. God is so awesome. He can do everything.”

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