Chhot Vichey wears a red thread bracelet around his left wrist. His parents gave it to him for spiritual protection in line with Buddhist beliefs. But Mr. Vichey, 25, is not Buddhist. At 15 years old, he has declared himself Baha’i.
“Sometimes I go with my parents for holidays to the pagoda,” he said on Wednesday. “I want to make them happy.”
Mr. Vichey was among about 100 followers of the Baha’i faith who gathered at a Phnom Penh dining hall on Wednesday to celebrate the birthdays of their founding prophets.
In a predominantly Buddhist country, Cambodian Baha’is said the religion’s promotion of education, service to others and the acceptance of all people attracted them to the faith.
“This is the first religion I wanted to be a part of,” said Keo Yvette, 67, who became Baha’i 20 years ago.
When Ms. Yvette was young, she followed her parents to the pagoda, but didn’t know anything about Buddhism, she said. Today, she and her 27-year-old son are active members of the Baha’i community.
“You don’t have to follow your ancestors,” said Keo Daravuth, who like Mr. Vichey adopted the faith at the age of 15. “You explore more. You investigate more,” he added, explaining that there are no religious leaders to dictate dogma.
Daily prayer is between oneself and God. Every 19 days, Baha’i communities gather to read holy texts and pray together. The religion emphasizes the oneness of God, all world religions and humanity, and stresses the importance of spiritual education and equality of the sexes. It also strives toward a single global religion and language.
The celebration of the Births of the Twin Prophets of the Baha’i faith commemorates the births of Baha’u’llah, the founder of Baha’i, who was born in November 1817 in Tehran, and Siyyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi, also known as the Bab, who was born in October two years later in Shiraz, Iran.
The faith was founded in 1844, and today claims to include 5 million followers worldwide, and an estimated 20,000 in Cambodia. The majority are concentrated in Battambang province, where a Baha’i House of Worship is slated to open on the Twin Prophets’ birthday next year, according to Ek Vanthon, a Baha’i from the province.
At the Phnom Penh celebration, adherents young and old closed their eyes, bowed their heads and listened to the chanting of Baha’i prayers in Khmer and English, with some reciting the writings of the Bab aloud.
Baha’i tenets proclaim that world religions are part of a spiritual continuum evolving toward a universal faith, and that the prophets of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and other religions are different manifestations of God’s divine educators, which were best suited to the time and place in which they lived. Baha’u’llah’s writings are believed to be moral teachings for the modern age.
Ms. Vanthon, the Baha’i from Battambang, said she adopted the faith 16 years ago, but continues to participate in some Buddhist traditions with her family, like attending her sister’s Buddhist wedding ceremony in 2002.
“When they do anything in the Buddhist way, they invite us,” Ms. Vanthon, 37, said of her Buddhist family members.
“It is possible for Baha’is to be active Baha’is and still participate in many Buddhist events,” Robert Stockman, director of the Wilmette Institute, an online Baha’i Learning Center, said in an email.
“There is nothing saying Baha’is can’t meditate or pay homage in a traditional manner. But a Baha’i could not become a Buddhist monk,” he added.
For Mr. Vichey, when his parents gave him the Buddhist bracelet, he could not say no. He used to believe that the blessed red thread would protect him, he said, but “after studying the Baha’i faith, I don’t strongly believe.”
surrusco@cambodiadaily.com
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