“Jesus village” in Mondulkiri’s Ou’Raing district has many ethnic Bunongs who gave up their traditional animistic beliefs to embrace Christianity.
Ou’Raing district, Mondulkiri province – Saroeun Borat decided to abandon his traditional beliefs and convert to Christianity after falling in love with a woman in his village who had embraced the religion.
Mr Borat, a 31-year-old ethnic Bunong and former animist, started learning about the religion in 2006 after meeting the woman who is now his wife.
He lives in the Pou Hyeam village of Sen Monorom commune in Mondulkiri’s Ou’Raing district. The village is also known as Jesus village because many villagers are Christians. The majority of Bunong people are animists, but some have converted to Christianity or Buddhism.
Mr Borat followed his parents’ traditional animist beliefs until 2008 after he started learning about Christianity from his wife.
“I love my wife and she embraced Christianity before me,” he says. “When we met, she gave me a Bible, and I started to learn about Jesus Christ.”
Mr Borat says he believes that Jesus will save all Christians from the law of Karma.
“My wife urged me to believe in Jesus if I wanted to marry her,” he says. “When I understood about Jesus, I decided to believe in him and do so until today.”
Mr Borat has eight family members, including his parents-in-law, living with him and all of them are Christians.
He says he appreciates the religion because it teaches people to respect each other and do good things.
Mr Borat had been working with a Christian NGO, which helped him to understand more about the religion. He is chief of the church parish in his village after being voted in for two mandates.
There are 35 families, or 218 Bunongs, in the village who practice Christianity.
“Our villagers who are Christians stopped believing in spirits or demons,” Mr Borat says. “We only believe in the power of Jesus, and our villagers attend mass in church every Sunday.”
He adds that the villagers also pray at their homes every Monday night, educate children about Christianity on Tuesdays and go to church on Wednesdays.
“We teach them to understand Jesus’ teachings and we do not force anyone to give up their current beliefs,” he says.
Mr Borat is happy that the Bible was translated into the Bunong language through the initiative of an American and Australian who can speak the Bunong language.
“Both of them helped to translate the original Bible from Greek to the Bunong language and cross checked the results with the English version,” he says. “The Bible helps to strengthen the spread of Christianity in our village.”
“We also cross checked the Bunong language Bible with the Khmer language version to streamline the meanings,” he adds, noting that the Bunong language Bible is widely read in the village.
Sitting in his house, Mr Borat says that his faith faces some discrimination by other Bunong people, but brushes this aside by saying that some people just want to poke fun at his beliefs.
“When I am invited to weddings or other traditional Bunong ceremonies, I don’t join the prayers or eat any food which has been offered to spirits,” Mr Borat says, adding that Bunong people who are animists will not attend the funeral of a Christian who dies in an accident.
“They are not angry with us, but their feelings are hurt because during their ceremonies all participants have to eat sacrificial food offerings, but when we join they have to keep aside some food for us which is not offered to spirits,” he says.
Mr Borat says that all Christian Bunong villagers organise funerals, weddings and other ceremonies according to the religion’s tenets, noting that Christmas Day is a big festival for them.
“During weddings when we pray in church, we close our eyes, but animists who join us don’t,” he says.
When Bunong people in the village pray in church, they sing in their language and use traditional instruments.
“We pray in the Bunong language, and maintain our traditional culture even though we are Christians,” Mr Borat says. “We have only given up the belief in spirits, but take care of and protect our traditional, customs and culture.”
Mr Borat says there is religious harmony in the village and the differences in beliefs do not lead to arguments or conflict.
In the village, there is a church which was built with funds from the villagers. It teaches children the Khmer and Bunong languages as well Christian concepts and philosophy.
The church has been decorated for the upcoming Christmas Day celebration on December 25.
Forty-year-old Ny Tel, also a Bunong Christian, embraced Christianity in 1996, and is currently an Ou’Raing district councillor. He says that he started to believe in the religion after some Vietnamese told him about Jesus’ teachings.
“They said they have good news and I asked them what it is,” Mr Tel says. “They told me that good news from Jesus is that he would receive Karma instead of us.”
He notes that he was sick at that time and depressed because he was not recovering, and adds that when the Vietnamese prayed to Jesus to save him, he felt happy and recovered fully.
“When they prayed, I felt happy and I recovered, so I believed in Jesus,” he says.
Mr Tel adds that his village has become more developed after villagers embraced Christianity.
Commune Chief Kvan Trial says that most of the villagers embraced Christianity in the 1990s.
“They say that while they were animists, they spent a lot on rituals,” she notes. “But in Christianity, they are not required to sacrifice pigs, cows or buffaloes to use the blood during prayers.”
“Some people are poor and do not have enough money to spend on traditional rituals, so they decided to follow Christianity,” Ms Trial adds.