PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Construction is to start next year on an eight-story Anglican church and community building that is to be the city’s largest Christian structure since the Khmer Rouge destroyed the Roman Catholic Cathedral here 40 years ago.
With a dramatic curving glass façade and a four-story white cross, the new church will offer more than 10 times the floor space of the current church building, the former residence of the last pre-Khmer Rouge mayor of Phnom Penh. This 1960s building will be torn down and the new building will rise on the same BKK1 lot, on Street 294 between Norodom and Pasteur.
The estimated cost is $3 million, about the same as the $2.9 million price tag on the city’s new Al-Serkal Mosque which opened in March. The mosque, Cambodia’s largest, was financed by a Dubai-based businessman. Fundraising for the new church, Church of Christ Our Peace, is about 60 percent complete, with many donations coming from Singapore, the seat of the Anglican diocese that includes Cambodia.
Religious Tolerance in Cambodia
Construction of the church reflects the quiet growth of Christianity in Cambodia – and the current spirit of religious tolerance.
Last Sunday, at a Muslim iftar dinner marking the end of a day of Ramadan fasting, plans for the new church were reviewed for the first time by Min Khin, Cambodia’s Minister of Cult and Religion.
“I think that is a great idea!” the Minister exclaimed, adding a broad smile. He had just given a talk outlining Cambodia’s policy of religious tolerance.
Similar views came from Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former communist, at the March 27 inauguration of the mosque behind the Phnom Penh Hotel, on Monivong.
“We see the world, where in some countries, religion has broken the nation,” the Prime Minister told about 1,000 Muslim faithful. “But for Cambodia, I can proudly say that we live together peacefully among races and religions.”
Khmer Rouge Campaigned Against Religion
It was not always so. The new mosque rose on the site of a 19th century mosque that the Khmer Rouge in 1975 converted into a pigsty.
Three blocks away, white crosses on a fence along Monivong are the only reminders of a soaring French Gothic revival cathedral, Notre Dame de Phnom Penh. Soon after occupying the city, the Khmer Rouge dynamited the Cathedral, burned books from the church library, and converted the Catholic cemetery into a banana plantation.
Before the year was out, the Maoists had destroyed all but a handful of the 73 Christian churches in Cambodia, including the nation’s second Roman Catholic Cathedral in Battambang.
Today, in Phnom Penh, the most visible surviving physical evidence of this Catholic heritage are church bells at the entrance steps to the National Museum. Several salvaged gravestones were relocated to the French Embassy garden.
The 1993 Constitution established freedom of religion and Buddhism as the state religion. Since then, Islam has rebounded and Christianity has spread. While Islam is more visible, the rapid spread of village house churches seems to indicate that each minority religion is followed by about 3 percent of Cambodians. The overwhelming majority of Cambodia’s 15 million people follow Theravada Buddhism.
Church Thinks Big
The new Church of Christ our Peace (CCOP) will have a 300-seat sanctuary and a 200-seat multipurpose hall. This will allow the English-speaking congregation and the smaller, Khmer-speaking congregation to have services simultaneously.
Is this too much for an English congregation of 175 faithful?
“We don’t want to build it for what’s happening now, but for what can be,” said Gregory Whitaker, an American who is Missionary Priest for CCOP. “The international expat population shows no signs of stopping. In fact it’s just ramping up, up, up. Because the church has continued to grow, we said: ‘let’s aim and plan for that.’”
In the two years that Pastor Whitaker has been here with his wife Heidi, a pediatrician, and their four daughters, CCOP has doubled each year, outgrowing two temporary quarters. Since January, it rented for Sunday morning services the 6th floor auditorium of the Phnom Penh International Institute of Art on Pasteur, near Street 288.
“One thing that I inherited – and did not build – is the 30 or so people who were first part of this international congregation – they were a very warm and welcoming congregation,” Pastor Whitaker recalled. “They didn’t create a clique or social club. Anyone would come, and it was very much ‘come and be a part and let’s connect you in.’ That type of culture has continued.”
“I almost always have a sermon series geared towards community: we can’t make it alone we can’t walk alone,” continued the pastor, who is from the American Midwest. “This whole Christian faith is meant to be a shared journey. There is no Lone Ranger. The preaching focuses on community, which is really critical because you have a transient population. People come from a transient life for so long. They need that call back to community, because the heart was created for that.”
The church, he said, focuses on basic Christianity and welcomes people from different denominations.
The Anglican Church was only established here in 1993 after then King Sihanouk told the Archbishop of Canterbury that the Anglicans could open churches here. The Anglican Church then bought the former residence of the mayor. Since then, the Anglican Church of Cambodia has grown to 10 churches and nine village “preaching points.”
Back When BKK1 Had Dirt Roads
Walking around the 1,400 square meter lot, Pastor Whitaker conjures up BKK1 in the early 1990s, when Street 294 “was a dirt road, with lagoons nearby, and malaria and dengue.”
Today, the roof on the old 1960s building leaks. Ceiling tiles have fallen on the floors as maintenance has been minimized, pending expected demolition in January. Because of construction around the lot, the rainy season means that water floods the lot and the first floor of the building.
Outside, near a jackfruit tree, stand two steel shipping containers. Pastors visiting from the countryside are given the choice of sleeping in the containers, or on cots placed outside under mosquito nets.
The new building will offer a guesthouse with up to 14 beds. Instead of a jackfruit tree, there will be a sheltered roof garden, a social spot accessible by stairs or an elevator. Instead of a leaking roof, there will be a “Ceiling Cross” formed by natural light filtering through glass ceiling tiles, forming a cross on a baptismal pool.
For this to happen, the CCOP is gearing up its fundraising drive. The goal is to hit 75 percent of needed funds by year’s end. This level will allow demolition and construction to start.
Since January, parishioners at Church of Christ our Peace have worshipped in a rented auditorium on the sixth floor of the Phnom Penh International Institute of Art, 134A Street 51. KT Photos: Fabien Mouret
CCOP’s Reverend Gregory Whitaker preaches at a service before a congregation that has grown steadily over the last two years.