Couples and religious heads explain how to sustain an interfaith marriage in a nation that is 95 percent Buddhist
For Mung Sambath, the journey of finding Christ began with in a small bicycle repair shop over a decade ago.
Ms Sambath was working for the shop when an Adventist pastor came to have his bike fixed.
The pastor spoke to her about his Lord and Saviour and she thought to herself: “If Jesus is as great as what the pastor said, surely he can cure my mother’s illness.”
She wasn’t sure at the time, but she took it upon herself to speak to the Christian God in prayer that very night.
“At night, after I met that pastor, I prayed to Jesus to help my sick mother. I had a dream that night. I dreamed that someone that looks like God and he told me that my mother will recover,” Ms Sambath says. “I was surprised that he came to me that quickly. A few days later, a doctor came to my village and checked my mother. The doctor told me that my mother will recover and she can eventually walk again.”
From that day on, she has a new found respect for Jesus and says that she doesn’t miss a single day of church.
Ms Sambath has been a Christian for about 20 years, in a country that is 95 percent Buddhist.
The mother of three converted from Buddhism to Christianity in 1999, ten years after she married her husband Penh Samoeun, who is a Buddhist.
Mr Samoeun says interfaith marriage takes work.
“When we married each other, we were of the same faith: Buddhism. In 1999, my wife decided to follow the Christian faith because she believed that the religion helps her,” he says.
When Ms Sambath expressed her desire to change faith, Mr Samoeun did the best he could to respect her decision.
“I wasn’t angry, nor did I refuse her choice because I thought it was her right,” he says. “I think every religion can teach its followers to be a good person.”
“She asked me if she could convert and I told her to choose what she loves,” Mr Samoeun says.
Though they are of different faiths, the couple has never argued over which religion is correct.
“Having a different religion doesn’t mean that a couple cannot be happy. Happiness doesn’t depend on religious beliefs, it depends on love and forgiveness,” Mr Samoeun says. “If a couple can learn to love and forgive, that couple will last forever.”
“I love my wife and even if she had a different religion before we were married I would still love her,” he adds. “But at the time we were following the same religion.”Ms Sambath interrupts her husband to say that regardless of her love for Jesus, the couple has never had an issue over their different faiths.
She goes on to say that her love for Jesus had made her a different person in life. She says she used to harbour resentment in her heart – a sentiment that had often make her quick to angry. However, upon giving herself to God, she has been able to control her emotions.
“The me today is different than the me 30 years ago,” Ms Sambath says. “I was not a nice person, not only to my husband, but also to some relatives.”
“I would always be ready for confrontation if someone made me angry,” she adds. “But finding Christ is like becoming a new person. My mind is now at peace and now I am the one that calms people down.”
Mr Samoeun concurs; he says that finding her faith made his wife gentle.
The lessons of Christ have now been handed down to two of her children. She says that her daughter has yet to decide which religion she would like to follow.
“My husband never prohibits the children from following their own faith,” Ms Sambath says.
Venerable Long Chan Pheakdey, a monk at Chumpou Vorn pagoda, says Buddhism never restricts its followers from marrying those of a different faith.
“Our religion has never prohibited Buddhists from loving and marrying people who have a different religion,” Ven Chan Pheakdey says. “They can marry whoever they want.”
He says that Visakha, who was a traditional Buddhist, married someone who followed Brahmanism. The couple lived and loved until their lesson was eventually passed down in Buddhist teaching.
“What is important is that a couple can live with each other and have an open mind to accept what others want,” he says. “Buddhism doesn’t mind this. All religions lead and teach their followers to be good people.”
Ven Chan Pheakdey says that even if a Buddhist converted to a different faith, his or her soul would not be considered that of a sinner.
“Buddhism is a personal belief for everyone who wants to follow,” he says. “We do not force our beliefs on others.”
Ven Chan Pheakdey says that in order to be happily married, one must believe in their partner, have faith with each other and be honourable.
Paul Roeung Chatserie, a priest and general secretary of the Apostolic Vicar of Phnom Penh, says Catholics were once forbidden to marry someone of a different faith.
“We solved the problem by allowing our followers to marry followers of other religions,” Mr Roeung Chatserie says. “There are two types of interfaith marriages: the first is mixed, which is with marriage with someone of a Christian faith, such as between a Catholic and a Protestant. The second is disparity of cult, which is someone of a Christian faith who marries someone from outside of a Christian religion.”
He notes that the ban on interfaith marriage was lifted by the Vatican during its second council under Pope John XXIII.
“The couple has to understand and learn from each other before getting married,” he says. “The couple must have mutual respect for each other’s faith in order to avoid marital problems.”
“If someone from one side does not agree on a certain aspect, marriage can be difficult,” Mr Roeung Chatserie adds. “Disagreements can even suspend a marriage plan.”
Sann Saroeun, a Christian, is married to a Buddhist wife. Mr Saroeun says that even though they have differences, they understand each other’s faith.
“When I told my wife that I was a Christian, she did not mind,” he says. “But her family and relatives were against us because they did not want her to marry a Christian.”
However, after a period of negotiation, the couple was able to convince his wife’s family to agree to the marriage.
“I respect my wife’s belief and she respects mine,” he says. “I think we should be honest with each other regardless of our religious differences.”