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Chams Face Wariness of Non-Muslim Neighbors

Cambodian Mulism leaders say their religion is still widely misunderstood by their neighbors, thanks to images on television and in the media of terrorists and extremists.

For example, since newly built mosques on the outskirts of Phnom Penh appeared, so have groups of foreign Muslim missionaries, wearing long beards and traditional robes, creating worry in nearby non-Muslims.

The imam of Kilometer 8 Mosque, Saleh Pin Apu Taleb, in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district, said the visitors are people who have come to educate Cambodia’s Cham Muslims on Islam, Allah and morality.

The visitors are from Arabic countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and India, the imam said, but they are not extremists.

He dismissed as misplaced the fears of non-Muslim neighbors who worry the men look like the extremists on television.

“They have just come to find dharma,” he said, using a Buddhist expression to explain the well-meaning intentions of the visitors.

“They come in groups of four, or five, or sometimes 10 people, and they educate us Cambodian Muslims in following our god,” said one Cham woman, who only gave her name as Mary.

Cambodia’s Chams are mostly considered peaceful and outside the realm of religious extremism.

However, Hambali, the leader of the group Jemaah Islamiyah, which was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, hid in Cambodia prior to his arrest in Bangkok in 2003.

Later that year, three other Muslims were arrested by Phnom Penh authorities and later found guilty of conspiring to commit terrorist acts against the US and British embassies.

Since then, the Chams have received greater attention from the West, and earlier this week the US sponsored a series of seminars to help Cambodian police understand Islam in Cambodia.

“Cambodian Muslims take active participation in the Cambodian government in the fight against all forms of terrorism in this country,” Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said at the opening of the seminars, on Monday.

US Ambassador Carol Rodley said Cambodian Mulsim leaders had been “forthright and united in their condemnation of terrorism, pointing out that Islam is a religion of peace.”