The Religions of Cambodia

A clump of burnt incense sticks in a temple.

Buddhism is by far the most widespread religion in both Cambodia with a majority of the people practising the faith. Virtually every village has a wat (temple), the spiritual heart of the community, where the monks reside.

Animist beliefs also remain very strong and most followers believe that the world is influenced by an array of spirits, guardians, and ghosts. Although these traditions are strongest in rural areas, many city dwellers also consult a shaman. There are some followers of Islam in Cambodia and a considerable Christian population.

Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism defines most cultural practices in Cambodia and entering monkhood is thought to accrue many benefits. Most men become monks for a short period in their lives, typically between three months and three years, living under a set of strict monastic rules. Women are also allowed to become monks, although it is usually later in life, often after the death of their husbands.

Buddhism in Cambodia is influenced by Hinduism and animism. These influences are visible not just in rituals and ceremonies, but also in temples such as the Bayon in Angkor Thom where statues of the Buddha coexist with those of Hindu gods.

Animist Beliefs

Animism is practised by many of the ethnic minorities in Cambodia, who follow varied forms of its rituals and customs. Many Cambodian people also retain a belief in spirits, which are associated with numerous aspects of day-to-day life, including health, the house, and nature.

Believers show respect to all spirits, with the exception of mneang phteah and mrenh kongveal, who are considered troublemakers and also capable of causing serious illness.

Animist customs among ethnic minorities include leaving offerings of food and burning incense sticks to placate spirits. Ancestor worship is important for a number of groups such as the hill tribes of Cambodia, including the Khmer Leu.

Virtually every household, office, and shop in Cambodia has a spirit house and a shrine to animist spirits since they are believed to act as a safeguard against malevolent forces.

Islam

A majority of Muslims, numbering about 250,000 in Cambodia are of Cham origin, although a few are ethnic Malays. Belonging to the Sunni sect of Islam, the Cambodian Chams, who suffered terribly under the Khmer Rouge, live on the coast of Cambodia in fishing communities.

Khmer Islam or Cham is the name given to the Muslims in Cambodia. They traditionally practise a syncretic form of the religion, incorporating animist beliefs. In recent years, however, they have become more orthodox.

Christianity

Christianity, Confucianism, and the Baha’i faith are among the other religions practised in Cambodia and Laos. There is a substantial, and expanding Christian population in Cambodia, along with small numbers of followers of the Baha’i and Confucian faiths.

Evangelical and Mormon churches are active in Cambodia, but proselytizing was officially banned in 2007 after missionary groups were accused of trying to convert people by offering free food and clothing.

Islamic places of worship were ransacked under the Khmer Rouge and an estimated 132 mosques were destroyed. Today, however, many new mosques are being built along the coast of Cambodia. Cham villagers on the coast of Cambodia are experiencing a resurgence in Islamic culture and pride.

Christianity has had a foothold in the region since 1556. There are around 20,000 in Cambodia.

Confucianism is practised by many ethnic Chinese in the region. The religion is based on the teachings of the highly revered Chinese sage and philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC), who outlined a code of moral, social, and political ethics that includes loyalty to the state and to the family.

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