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Praying, Literally, for Economic Recovery

As the global financial downturn continues, Cambodians are turning to religion and magic to improve their lots.

Religious leaders say thousands of extra people have been gathering at pagodas and other sacred sites across the country seeking amulets, water blessings and other practices, hoping for an economic recovery.

Holding a bouquet of flowers and several lighted sticks of incense recently, Than Chhiv Horn calmly prayed at a small shrine near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, hoping that her business would improve from its slump over the past few months.

“Realizing that our economy is slowing down, currently I’m praying that our country and our economy will soon recover,” the 38-year-old businesswoman said. “So my business will be better and my family will be happier.”

Cambodia is predominantly Buddhist, but its practitioners are heavily influenced by the animism of their ancestors and the Hinduism that existed here centuries ago. In times of trouble, many Cambodians seek solace at temples or other sites.

In the well-known Prasath pagoda in Kandal province, 20 kilometers north of the capital, hundreds of middle-aged and young people gathered recently to light incense and pray before Buddha, as others accepted a sprinkling of water, a blessing, from monks.

As the global economic crisis deepens, thousands have come to the pagoda asking for amulets, chief month Sam Sim told VOA Khmer.

“More and more people are coming to ask Buddha for help in their businesses and for happiness within their families,” he said.

Nearby, restaurant staffer Ouk Srey Pov said she was visiting the pagoda for the first time, after her boss warned her and others he was considering firing some staff.

“The boss will reduce some workers due to a decline in customers,” she said. “I’m afraid I’ll be laid off. I’ve come to pray for a strong economy and to make my boss like me and not dismiss me.”

“I’m praying for a quick economic recovery, to make people have more employment with high salaries,” said a 21-year-old student named Panharoth. “For me, I also hope to have a good future, as long as the economy recovers.”

That recovery may take some time. The World Bank now estimates Cambodia’s economy will contract at least 1 percent in 2009, with its major industries—garments, tourism, construction and agriculture—all feeling a pinch. And it will take more than prayer to salvage the economy.

“The rise and fall of the economy is not related to praying,” UNDP economist Lim Sovannara said. “It will only depend on the context of the world economy.”

Still, as the downturn deepens, all that prayer might have an effect, at least on people’s wellbeing, said Ros Chantra Buth, deputy director of Cambodia’s Royal Academy.

“Based on psychology, religious belief will persuade people to be hopeful and struggle for the future,” he said.