Reaching the Nations

Cambodia

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Cambodia

Geography

Area: 181,035 square km.  Cambodia is located in Southeastern Asia and borders Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the Gulf of Thailand. The climate in the country is tropical, with plains occupying most of the country covered in rainforest and jungle, much of which is swampy.  The Mekong River enters Cambodia from the north and exits to the southeast into Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea.  A large, shallow lake with swampy coastlines named Tonle Sap exists between the capital city of Phnom Penh and the second largest city of Battambang to the northwest.  A few small islands near the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand also belong to the country.  Flooding is the primary natural hazard whereas deforestation and strip mining are environmental concerns.  There are 23 administrative provinces.

 

Population: 14,494,293 (July 2009)

Annual Growth Rate: 1.765% (July 2009)

Fertility Rate: 3.04 children born per woman (2009)

Life Expectancy: male 60.03, female 64.27 (2009)

 

Peoples

Khmer: 90%

Vietnamese: 5%

Chinese: 4%

Other: 4%

 

Cambodians call themselves Khmer and  account for 90% of the population..  The Vietnamese are concentrated primarily in the capital, Phnom Penh.  Chinese constitute about 1%, whereas other ethnicities such as Cham comprise the remaining 4%.  The Cham were targeted by the Khmer Rouge along with the Chinese and had their numbers significantly reduced. 

 

Languages: Khmer [Cambodian] (95%), Vietnamese (2.7%), Cham (2.0%), other (0.3%).  Khmer is the official language; 23 languages are spoken.  Only Khmer has over one million speakers (13.8 million). 

Literacy: 73.6% (2004)

 

History

The powerful Angkor Empire occupied what is today Cambodia between 900 and 1200 A.D.  The French colonized Cambodia in the late 19th century and controlled the region until World War II when the area was invaded by Japan.  Following World War II, France regained jurisdiction until independence in the early 1950s.  A communist regime named the Khmer Rouge overtook Phnom Penh in 1975 under Pol Pot.  For the following several years an estimated one to three million people in the country were executed or died from starvation or exhaustion due to ethnic cleansing and the implementation of radical communist ideology.  The Khmer Rouge were driven out by the Vietnamese in the late 1970s and 1980s.  For the following decade and a half Cambodia suffered from political instability between the Khmer and Vietnamese.  A stable government was elected in the late 1990s.  Since this time, Cambodia has enjoyed increasing peace and stability.

 

Cambodia is home to many temple sites build in the 12th century, such as the famous Angkor Wat temple complex. Many of the tourists come to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat and similar sites

 

Culture 

Buddhism and the Angkor Empire have heavily shaped Cambodian culture.  Social views on wealth and its public display have changed rapidly since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.  Wealth is generally displayed through jewelry or clothing.  Rapid industrialization continues to increase materialism.  Etiquette is deeply related to the Khmer language.  Ethnic tensions between Khmer and Vietnamese are high.  Fish and rice are important food staples.  Bonn Om Teuk, a boat racing festival, occurs annually on the Mekong River.  Alcohol and cigarette consumption rates are lower than most countries. 

 

Economy

GDP per capita: $2,000 (2008) [4.26% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.593

Corruption Index: 1.8

Most of the economy centers on agriculture.  75% of the workforce was employed in agriculture in 2004.  Economic conditions in Cambodia are quickly improving with growth in tourism, construction, textiles, and agriculture.  Growth appears to be primarily centered in the largest cities.  The countryside remains very poor and isolated from urban, wealthier cities.  Primary crops include rice, silk, nuts, and vegetables.  The area around the second largest city Battambang is the most productive for agriculture and rice can be grown year round due to easily accessible water for irrigation.

 

Oil reserves were discovered off the coast of Cambodia around 2005 and plans were made to extract this resource, which are expected to generate revenue starting in 2011.  Other natural resources include gems and wood products.  Cambodia sends over half of its exports to the United States, whereas Thailand sends the most imports to.  Geographically Cambodia is located in a favorable location.  Thailand, Vietnam, China, and Indonesia also represent important trading partners.

 

Faiths

Buddhist: 93%

Muslim: 5%

Christian: 2%

 

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Catholic   20,000

Latter-Day Saints  8,359  22

Seventh-Day Adventists   5,952  6

Jehovah’s Witnesses  378  8  

 

Religion

The 1998 census in Cambodia found that 96.4% of people identified themselves as Buddhists and 2.4% identified as Muslims.  Islam is practiced by the Cham people who live around the city of Kampong Cham.  Christianity is practice by less than 2% of the populationThere has been concern about  some Christian groups which have disturbed public life and tried to coerce Buddhists to abandon Buddhism for food or money. 

 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The constitution protects religious freedom which is upheld by the government.  Government does not permit religious discrimination.  The official religion is Buddhism and the government recognizes Buddhist holidays and promotes the religion.  Religious groups must be registered to construct buildings and hold meetings.  Only Buddhism can be taught in public schools; other religions can only be taught in private schools. 

 

Largest Cities

Urban: 22%

 

Phnom Penh, Kâmpóng Saôm, Battambang, Siem Reap, Sisophon, Kracheh, Kampong Thum, Ta Khmau, Pousat, Prey Veng.

Cities without an LDS congregation are listed in bold.

 

Five of the 10 largest cities have a congregation.  10% of the national population lives in the 10 largest cities. 

 

LDS History

The first Cambodian members of the Church were baptized in the United States in the 1970s after immigrating due to war in Southeast Asia.  In the late 1980s, a French doctor shared copies of the Book of Mormon with a few Khmer colleges in Phnom Penh and donated a few others to local education institutions.  In 1991, there were eight missionaries teaching the Gospel in Cambodian in Boston, Massachusetts among the Cambodian population.[1]  However in 2009, there were no Cambodian speaking congregations in the Northeast United States.   Missionaries who have served in the region report of hundreds of inactive Cambodian members.

 

Legal recognition was granted to the Church in Cambodia on March 4th, 1994.  The first Church representatives in the country served in humanitarian and service efforts.  Senior missionary couples serving as humanitarian/service missionaries teaching English began to labor in neighboring Vietnam in 1993.  At this time the senior missionaries in Cambodia were not allowed to proselyte.  The first Church meeting in the country was held on March 27th, 1994 in a hotel.  The first convert baptism in Cambodia was in May and congregations were created shortly thereafter.[2]  President Hinckley visited Cambodia in May of 1996 and dedicated the country for the preaching of the Gospel.  President Hinckley spoke at a special fireside with 439 in attendance, half of whom were not church members. 

 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 8,359 (2008)

Membership increased to 601 members at the end of 1997, 891 the following year and over 1,000 at year-end 1999.  Membership more doubled in 2000 to 2,136.  For the next five years, the Church saw rapid growth in membership.  By the end of 2002, membership had climbed to nearly 5,100.  Membership increased by another thousand members to 6,089 by the end of 2003.  Growth began to slow with membership increasing to 6,865 at year-end 2004, 7,465 in 2005, and 7,874 in 2006. 

 

The majority of the growth of the Church had taken place in Phnom Penh.  In Battambang, the branch experienced rapid growth during the first year and a half of its existence.  In April 2005 that membership in the branch reached 150 and had outgrown their rented building used for Sunday Church meetings.[3]  By July 2005 the first five missionaries were called to serve missions from the branch, and membership had risen to 170.[4] 

 

Cambodia is the country in Southeast Asia with the second highest percentage of members of the Church in the population after Singapore.  As of the end of 2008 there was about one member of the Church per 1,700 people.  As of September 2009, Cambodia was the country with the second most members without a stake after Russia. 

 

Congregational Growth

Branches: 24

The first district was created in Phnom Penh in November 1995 with three branches (two Cambodian -speaking and one Vietnamese-speaking) and over 200 members.

 

On July 1st, 1997 the Cambodia Phnom Penh Mission was created from the Thailand Bangkok Mission.  At the time there were 17 missionaries serving in the country.  Earlier that year, the first missionary from Cambodia was called to serve in Idaho.  By the end of 1997 there were three Cambodian-speaking branches and one Vietnamese-speaking branch.  The number of missionaries serving in the country increased to 24 by the end of 1998.  A fifth congregation was organized by 1999.[5]

 

Congregations began to be established outside of the capital city.  In 2000, branches increased from five to 11.  A Vietnamese-speaking district was created for the three Vietnamese branches in Phnom Penh in December 2001 and the Cambodian speaking district was divided in December of 2002 to create a second Cambodian speaking district in Phnom Penh.  A branch was created in Kampong Cham sometime before 2001.  The first branch in the second largest city of Battambang was organized in December of 2003.  In 2004, the number of missionaries serving in the country had risen to about 100, half of whom were Cambodian.  By this time there were 20 congregations.  A fourth district was created in 2005 in the city of Kampong Cham, where there were three branches established. 

 

New additional cities were opened to missionary work and branches were established in 2007.  These cities were Siem Reap and Kampong Thom, both located between Phnom Penh and Battambang north of Tonle Sap.  In 2009, two new branches were created in Cambodia.  An English speaking branch, named the Phnom Penh 13th Branch, was created.  The Battambang Branch divided into the Battambang 1st and the Battambang 2nd Branches. 

 

As of September 2009, there were four Cambodian-speaking congregations in the U.S., consisting of three congregations in California (one ward and two branches) and one branch in Utah.  The first U.S. Cambodian-speaking ward was organized in Long Beach, California in 2005. 

 

Activity and Retention

Branch members are preparing for the responsibilities of wards and stakes, but no announcement or projection has been made for the first stake.  Low member activity appears to be the main impediment to the creation of a stake in Phnom Penh.  Nominal membership growth became increasingly uncoupled from congregational growth in the mid-2000s.  The number of branches increasing only from 14 in 2002 to 24 in 2009 while nominal membership more than tripled, indicating that most new members were not retained. 

 

Many of the branches in Phnom Penh have around 100 members attending sacrament meeting.  There was an average of about 350 members of the Church per branch in Cambodia in 2009.  This is an increased from 291 members per branch in 2000.  Considering most branches have 80-100 active members indicates that probably only around 2,000 to 2,400 members are active, or 25% of total membership.  In September 2009, sacrament meeting attendance in the Siem Reap Branch was reported to be around 130, double the number from a year before. 

 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Khmer, Vietnamese

All LDS scriptures are available in Khmer, Vietnamese, and Chinese.  The Church has translated some Priesthood, Relief Society, Sunday School, young women, primary, missionary, audio/visual, family history, and scripture materials into these languages.  Some CES materials are also available in Khmer.   

 

Meetinghouses

The first Church built meetinghouse was dedicated in 2004 to be used by all three districts in Phnom Penh for large meetings.  During 2008, at least two new chapels were built in Phnom Penh.  A district meetinghouse for the Phnom Penh Cambodia North District was dedicated at the end of May.  A meetinghouse for the Phnom Penh 4th and 11th Branches was dedicated later that year in the southeastern portion of the city. 

 

Health and Safety

Cambodia has a high risk for the spread of infectious disease.  0.8% are infected with AIDS/HIV. 

 

Humanitarian and Development Work

Many members of the Church in the United States have periodically participated in donation and humanitarian work for Cambodia. 

 

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

 

Religious Freedom

The Church enjoys religious freedom and does not face legal challenges in conducting missionary work. 

 

National Outreach

The Church is only accessible by Cambodians living in or around Phnom Penh, Battambang, Kampong Cham, Siem Reap, and Kampong Thom.  The remain large cities lack a Church presenc, includingKampong Saom on the coast and Sisophon near the Thai border.  About half of the approximate 14.5 million Cambodians live in a province which does not have a congregation.  Even in the provinces with a church presence, most have hundreds of thousands of people in unreached areas.  The majority of Cambodia’s population is rural, which presents challenges in proclaiming the gospel more widely.

                       

The Cambodia Phnom Penh Mission has established branches and opening of new proselytizing areas on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.  Branches currently operate in Sen Sok (about five miles northeast of Phnom Penh), Ta Khmau (about five miles south of Phnom Penh) and Kean Svay (about five miles east of Phnom Penh).  These branches belong to one of the two Cambodian speaking districts in Phnom Penh.  As the Church grows in Phnom Penh, cities and villages near the capital may eventually have congregations established.  Areas to the northeast and south of Phnom Penh are some of the most densely populated areas in Cambodia. 

 

The Vietnamese LDS community in Phnom Penh conducts limited outreach in Vietnam, where non-natives are barred from serving as missionaries.  In the late 2000s, Vietnam-native missionaries had to be temporarily withdrawn to serve in Vietnamese areas of Phnom Penh and train newly-arrived North American missionaries. 

 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

The Church in Cambodia has grown rapidly with modest to low retention rates.  During the decade of the 2000s, membership increased eightfold and the number of congregations increased nearly five times. Membership and congregation growth has slowed dramatically between 2006 to present.  One reasons for the slowdown in growth is mission leadership devoting more time and resources to preparing members of the Church in Phnom Penh for a stake to be created instead of adding as many converts as in prior years.  The division of the Battambang branch was delayed until the summer of 2009, notwithstanding rapid numerical membership growth, due to challenges of low convert retention and difficulties with leadership development.

 

Poverty produces challenges for retention when individuals join the Church in hopes of material improvement.  In Kampong Cham, where many members joined at least partly due to strong church welfare programs,  only about 50 of the 390 members in one branch attend Church meetings.  Problems with recent converts and actively linked to their dependence on welfare monies is not unusual among many other nationalities in Southeast Asia in their home countries and in the United States.  It can be difficult for missionaries and leadership to discern whether there are those learning about the Church for the right reasons, especially if they struggle financially.

 

Another key factor in the slowdown has been prior practices of quickly baptizing who were not regularly attending church before baptism and who lacked other gospel habits, and subsequently did not become and remain active members.  A focus on ensuring the proper teaching of prospective converts and requiring that necessary life changes be consistently implemented and firmly established before baptism will be essential to minimize avoidable convert losses.

 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Language differences and ethnic tensions between Khmer and Vietnamese contributed to the establishment of language-specific congregations and districts in Phnom Penh.  Integration of the Cham people into congregations may be challenging due to the large differences in culture, language and religion.  

 

Language Issues

The large range of ecclesiastical materials and all LDS scriptures in Khmer and Vietnamese allow potential outreach for 97.7% of the population.  Outreach among the Muslim Cham and small, isolated tribes speaking native languages will be challenging as the Church has yet to begin outreach in these locations.

 

Leadership

The majority of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 30.  This creates challenges for fellowshipping young converts while limiting those who can lead congregations due to their age.  However, many youth converts who remain active later become pillars of strength as the live the gospel, Jesus Christ, serve missions, and marry and raise families in the Church.  Most members have access to Church Education System (CES) programs designed to strengthen the testimonies and establish a doctrinal foundation.  Senior missionaries serving in the Siem Reap and Kampong Thom Branches reported in 2009 that the seminary and institute programs were available for members of the Church in these remote branches for the first time, preparing many youth to serve missions.

 

Temple

Cambodia belongs to the Hong Kong China Temple district.  Periodic temple trips are subsidized as most members would not otherwise be able to afford the travel expenses, but still require member sacrifice. 

A temple in Cambodia may be more likely to be constructed after multiple stakes are organized.

 

Comparative Growth

A modest number of Cambodian youth have served missions in Cambodia and outside the country.  Both Mongolia and Cambodia have experienced similar history regarding the establishment of the Church, its rapid growth, and the size of their current LDS membership.  The Church in Mongolia has seen much higher retention and higher rates of missionary service than Cambodia, notwithstanding Cambodian immigrants in the United States being taught long before missionaries were serving in either Cambodia or Mongolia.

 

Like Mongolia, Cambodia has a very small Christian population.  Other missionary-oriented Christian churches have small memberships in Cambodia, although various Baptist and Evangelical groups reported rapid growth from the mid-1990s to the present with church-planting approaches.  The Seventh Day Adventist Church reported 5,952 members in Cambodia in six congregations in 2008 after operating in the country for 80 years, and experiencing its most rapid growth between 1995 and 2000.  Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 329 members in 2008 for Cambodia.  Both of these Christian groups had reported very slow growth rates in recent years.  The majority of Cambodian Christians belong to mainline Protestant denominations. 

 

Future Prospects

Cambodia offers abundant opportunities for future church growth.  Missionary work to date has been confined to a few major population centers and surrounding suburbs; most of the nation remains unreached  In 2009, missionaries reported that the Church is growing the strongest in Phnom Penh.  However, many new branches are unlikely to be organized in Phnom Penh until both districts become stakes.    Rapid growth will likely continue in Phnom Penh, where the mission is based and many strong branches are organized.  Continued expansion into other regions of the country is likely as the member base becomes stronger in existing congregations.  The recent slowdown in membership and congregation growth brings concern about whether Cambodians are becoming less receptive to the Gospel or whether more focus is centered on reactivation and training membership for their responsibilities in the Church. An increased focus on gospel habits and preparation for baptism as well as fellowshipping and integration will be necessary to improve convert retention rates and  strengthen local congregations.

 

 



[1] “Boston: Gospel rolls forward in one of nation’s oldest cities,” LDS Church News, 28 September 1991.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/20681/Boston-Gospel-rolls-forward-in-one-of-nations-oldest-cities.html

[2]  White, Leland D. and Joyce B.  “The Gospel Takes Hold in Cambodia,” Liahona, Oct 1997, 41

[3]  “Cambodian branch remembers anniversary,” LDS Church News, 30 April 2005.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/47241/Cambodian-branch-remembers-anniversary.html

[4]  “Called to serve,” LDS Church News, 2 July 2005.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/47501/Called-to-serve.html

[5]  Stahle, Shaun D. “Emerging Church in Cambodia,” LDS Church News, 14 February 2004.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/45081/Emerging-Church-in-Cambodia.html