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Muslims Enjoy Khmer New Year, Quietly

Sitting on a small wooden bed inside a new mosque on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, So Pey Tah, a 50-year-old Muslim, sat talking with neighbors as all around her, Khmer compatriots were loudly celebrating the New Year.

Cambodia’s predominant Buddhists observe a lunar new year, in mid-April, in raucous celebrations that include three days of revelry, water fights, late-night dances and trips to the pagodas.

So Pey Tah, on the other hand, like most of Cambodia’s 500,000 Muslims, observed the holiday without burning offerings to the incoming spirit of the new year, selling sweets instead.

“We have to celebrate it together because we’re living in the same country,” she said. “But for me, we don’t make any offerings to welcome a new god, because we have a different religion.”

Adherents of Islam believe in one god, Allah, while Cambodian Buddhists mix animism with Theravada Buddhism, in customs influenced by ancient Hinduism.

Cambodia’s Muslims, commonly referred to as Chams, celebrate important Islamic holidays, such as the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and Ramadan, a period of fasting, said Suos Komrey, Cambodia’s prime Islamic leader, or mufti.

“All Cambodian Muslims can freely celebrate Khmer New Year but are not allowed to go to the pagoda for prayer,” he said.

However, Loh Abdul Rosman, imam of the Kilometer 9 Mosque, outside Phnom Penh, said it was an individual’s right to pray at a pagoda, even a Muslim.

Meanwhile, many Muslim youths enjoyed New Year celebrations.

“I feel happier than usual,” 20-year-old Meut Salah told VOA Khmer as the holiday was underway. “We are playing popular games with other Chams every night.”