Jehovah’s Witnesses Open Kingdom Hall Near Angkor Wat.
SIEM REAP (Khmer Times) – As she moves from door to door handing out pamphlets and sharing her Jehovah Witness faith in a 95-percent Buddhist nation, Terry O’Donnell realizes the challenge of converting Cambodians from the only religion they have ever known.
“We explain what we’re doing here, what the Bible is, who wrote it,” said Ms. O’Donnell, an Australian. “Some people are friendly, but not interested. So you have to learn to discern the difference. I just want to show them what it [the Bible] says.”
Last month, Jehovah’s Witnesses completed construction of Siem Reap’s first Kingdom Hall, or Jehovah’s Witness church. After one decade here, Siem Reap’s two congregations now have a home.
Now, they are systematically mapping Siem Reap province for door-to-door preaching.
The Kingdom Hall, the third in Cambodia, is located on Bakheng Club Road, near the French School, about 10 kilometers southwest of Angkor Wat. Most of Cambodia’s Witnesses are foreign volunteers, from Japan, Korea, Australia and North America. Meetings and Bible study are all in Khmer and Cambodian Sign Language.
About 240 people attend Bible studies here. Of these, about half do weekly house calls as a part of their mission.
Jehovah’s Witnesses strictly follow Bible teachings. They are known for their house calls, and for refusing blood transfusions and military service. Members are not considered Witnesses, or “publishers,” unless they log hours each month sharing their religion with non-believers.
In 2009, there were 38 publishers in Siem Reap. Now there are 60 living here and an estimated 800 throughout Cambodia. A fourth Kingdom Hall is under construction in Battambang.
Worldwide, the Jehovah Witness faith is growing by about 2 percent a year.
Ms. O’Donnell and her husband Rob, both Australians, have lived in Siem Reap for two years. They say they have no intention of leaving. In the 1990s, Ms. O’Donnell was working with refugees in Australia when she started meeting displaced Cambodians who couldn’t speak English. She learned the language and worked primarily with Cambodians in the years before she moved to Siem Reap.
“I’m happy to do this,” she said over coffee. “It’s practical, good advice that helps you to be a better person. For me it just makes sense.”
Her husband is a pensioner, so they can afford to work full-time as publishers.
“The area gets covered systematically,” she said, explaining the mission strategy. “We have maps. We’ve got one brochure with some writing, but mainly pictures. Cambodians learn better that way. A lot of people do.”
When asked about target demographics and who shows up to meetings, she said they target everyone equally and their meetings mirror their outreach. She has noticed that older Cambodians are more receptive.
“Maybe because they didn’t have access to info for so long and now they want to know more,” she said, referring to the generation that survived the Khmer Rouge era. “People are curious, aren’t they?”
When questioned about the high turnout of deaf Cambodians to meetings, Ms. O’Donnell chalked it up to statistics. “Cambodia has heaps of deaf people,” she said.
An old woman living at the base of Phnom Bok, a temple complex 25 km from Siem Reap, did not know any sign language until a few years ago. Then, an American Witness started teaching her sign language and the Bible. Now, Ms. O’Donnell visits her every Friday with lessons from their ‘Enjoy Life’ brochure on a tablet in Cambodian Sign Language.
“I just want to show them what it says,” she insists. “It’s up to them what they do about it. I’m not knocking Buddhism, but people have often sought answers and not found that. Probably because [Buddhism] is more of a custom or tradition.”
For her, converting is “a huge thing to do here because you’re going against your family’s wishes straight away. If you change, it’s because you’ve really proven that its true. Conversion isn’t in a week or month or year. You learn about it at a pace that you can handle, you decide what you want to do, and then you decide if you want to be a Witness.”
At a Siem Reap pagoda, one Buddhist monk spoke freely about Christian proselytizing, as long as he would not be identified.
He said had no problem with Christians and said that Christianity was similar to Buddhism in that both teach people to be good people. But, he said that one Christian group appeared at his pagoda and told the monks that Buddha was bad. Buddhists, he said, would never say that about another religion’s god.
Jehovah’s Wítness missionaries arrived in Cambodia about 25 years ago. The first Buddhist missionaries either came from India in the Century or from China in Fifth Century. With the exception of the Khmer Rouge period, Buddhism has been Cambodia’s state religion since the 13th Century.