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In Preah Sihanouk, a Tale of Two Mosques

Din Nos lives just a few steps from a newly built mosque in his home village of Banteay Prey in Preah Sihanouk province. But he refuses to pray there.

Instead, the 76-year-old travels a kilometer down the road, to neighboring O’trav village. That’s because the new mosque has brought new ways with it, and Din Nos, who is almost bald and was lying on a long wooden bed facing the new mosque, prefers the old traditions.

“In this new mosque, they do not pray the way we do,” he said. “We don’t just follow the new way after having seen it, because we have our traditional ways left behind by our ancestors.”

According to Din Nos’ traditions, the practice of Islam includes prayers for the dead, so that they may communicate with Hell, and celebration of the birthday of Mohammad. These practices and others are denounced by the mosque next door.

It wasn’t always this way, though. Residents here say they used to pray at the same old mosque, which was named after the two villages—O’trav and Banteay Prey—that shared it.

The breakup came in 2008, after the new mosque, funded by benefactors in Saudi Arabia, was built. The Derol Es Las Mosque cost about $30,000 and was constructed after a group of young Muslim men returned from overseas studies in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia, according to Ron As Matt, a religious teacher at the mosque.

“The practices of Islam by the traditional group are against our religion,” he said in an interview at the new mosque. “The Quran allows Muslims to do just two celebrations: Ramadan and the Hajj in Mecca.”

“If they continue their practices, it will affect the next generation,” said Ron As Matt, who is 29 and studied Islam in Thailand. “The young will take on the wrong practices that do not exist in the Quran or under ‘hadith.’”

Down the road, the traditionalists disagree.

“Our group cannot accept the Wahhabist teachings,” Sen Sakarya, himself a teacher at the older mosque, said. “We don’t agree with them, because we have done our own way for generations. The Wahhabists just want to eliminate or long-standing practices.”

So far, the schism over the mosque and the new ways have led only to verbal attacks. No violence has been reported between the followers of each mosque.

Still, Ung Feul, the provincial imam, said he has had to step in and ask both sides to respect each others’ practice.

“They each have their own rights to practice religion in their own way,” he said.