Some 150 years ago, the Baha’i faith was born in Iran, making it one of the youngest religions in the world.
Last year, the first Baha’i temple opened in Cambodia’s Battambang province, where hundreds of worshipers now congregate.
Baha’is believe in the unity of God, religion, and humanity and that these core principles are revealed through divine messengers, or prophets, including Moses, Muhammad, and Jesus Christ. Bahá’u’lláh, who founded the religion in Iran in the 1860s, declared himself the latest manifestation of these messengers.
There are an estimated 6 million Baha’is worldwide, including several thousand in Cambodia, where the faith first carved out a foothold in the 1920s.
Hou Sopheap, the Baha’i House of Worship’s director, said the temple was established to promote respect for all faiths.
“The temple is built to signify the unity of various religions. To show that all religion can enter and pray according to their beliefs in this sacred temple without discriminating against anyone,” he said.
He added that Battambang province was chosen because of the receptiveness of the locals and local authorities.
Situated amid rice fields and meadows some seven kilometers from Battambang city center, the temple is built with nine sides to represent Bahá’u’lláh, the ninth messenger of God.
Ing Sothearat, 25, is a long-time devotee to the Baha’i faith, having spent more than six years studying its texts and administering the temple.
When she was 18 years old, Sothearat was introduced to the Baha’i faith through workshops run by local Baha’i leaders.
“If I had not studied spirituality and its effect on society, I might not be myself now, because some of my friends go around, drink recklessly and so on. So, I am happy where I am now,” she said.
She read the seven core texts Baha’is study, finding that the fifth book, which touches on adolescence, struck a chord with her.
“I think it’s very special. They teach young people to learn how to find their innate talent. The book focuses on helping young people to make use of their talents to realize their dreams. I see that it’s important because people in my community seem to not know about what they want to do in life.”
Originally a Buddhist, Sothearat said her faith does not forbid her from observing other religious practices, which she said was important for her Buddhist family and community.
“The religion does not forbid us from going to a pagoda. So, when my parents asked me to join them at the pagoda during Pchum Ben, a festival when Cambodians gather to pay respect to the dead ... I can still go. As long as I go with respect.”
She says that the Baha’i faith has taught her something that formal education tends to miss out on. While academic education focuses on materialistic issues, the Baha’i faith stresses the importance of spirituality.
San Sopheak, a Baha’i coordinator from Takeo province, became similarly immersed in the Baha’i faith about 12 years ago.
He says he has become more charitable since becoming a follower of Bahá’u’lláh after developing a love of teaching. Through his Baha’i education, he learned about a comparative religious study, but also about the sciences.
“The religion teaches us that spirituality and science go together,” he said. “When you become a believer in this religion, you feel that all religions are the same, and we are leading the world as one family, one society, one humanity.”
“Bahá’u’lláh tells us to live scientifically, regardless of your religion; that is with moral, human dignity. We can’t be too dogmatic, we must be scientific.”
“In order to worship a religion, we don’t have t be cut off completely from material things. We must be conscious of how we create those material elements and whether it will affect other people around us or not.”
Sopeap, the temple director, hopes that more temples can be built in other areas of Cambodia and that the Battambang temple can expand “to serve the people with a training center, schools for children, a university and care homes for the elderly.”