Prime Minister Hun Sen celebrates the Christian presence, but Theary Seng remains in prison

The Cambodian prime minister addressed celebrations marking the centenary of the first Evangelical mission, saying that the kingdom “grants broad rights and freedoms". He urged Christians to contribute to "political stability” and “social order". Meanwhile, a well-known Christian activist is still serving six years in prison for supporting the opposition.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke at an event marking the centenary of the presence of Evangelical communities in the country. Meanwhile, Theary Seng, a well-known Christian activist who worked on a new Khmer translation of the Bible, is still serving six years in prison for "treason".

The prime minister, who has ruled the country for almost 40 years, stressed that “the Royal Government supports and grants broad rights and freedoms to all religions in the kingdom”, adding that “religious differences are not an obstacle to the nation's development. Please do not force someone to change their belief”..

The two-day Gospel Centennial Celebration in the capital Phnom Penh commemorates the arrival of the first Protestant missionaries in 1923.

That is more recent than the Catholic Church whose first roots can be traced back to a Portuguese friar, Gaspar da Cruz, who tried to start a mission as early as 1555. After severe persecution, a community was reconstituted in 1790 in Battambang.

Several religious confessions have flourished in the country since the end of the country’s civil war, noted Prime Minister Sen. Before that, during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) almost all churches were razed to the ground while the Catholic cemetery near Phnom Penh cathedral was turned into a banana plantation.

“During the time of war, religion also suffers. Look at what has happened in Ukraine. For Cambodia, thanks to peace, we are prospering,” Hun Sen said. “There must be no division in the Christian community,” he added.

The prime minister went on “to ask everyone to participate in activities related to the development of our country and to continue to maintain peace, political stability, security, and social order [. . .] to ensure that all religions, especially among our Christians, enjoy peace and prosperity.”

While Christians are a small minority in Cambodia, Evangelical communities are experiencing slow by steady growth; for example, centenary celebrations were organised by an executive committee with, unlike in the past, only three foreign members; and three quarters of the US$ 228,000 raised for the event comes from local donations, Christianity Today reports.

Still, it is not all rosy. Theary Seng, a Christian woman who backed former opposition leader Saim Rainsy, remains in prison after the Supreme Court upheld a six-year sentence imposed in October of last year.