Cambodia’s Muslim Western Cham People

cham-people-cambodia-30-days-netThere are 308,000 Cham people living in Cambodia; 127,000 in Vietnam; 15,000 in Laos; and some in other countries. In Cambodia, the Cham people live in about 378 villages, most of which are just north of Phnom Penh. The Cham language is related to the languages of Western Indonesia and Malaysia. The Cham people were originally people of an ancient kingdom, a wealthy maritime nation in frequent contact with China, located along the central coast of Vietnam called Champa.

The Importance of the Cham in Cambodia

The Cham people are an important ethnic minority in Cambodia. They are mainly rice farmers but also grow cotton, maize, tobacco, castor-oil plants, manioc, peanuts, ferns, beans, and vegetables. Some Cham are involved in animal domestication, hunting, and fishing. There are some Cham fishermen in the villages along the banks of the Mekong and its tributaries. Some are also cattle traders and butchers.

Folk Islam Beliefs

The Cham have been involved in Hinduism and Buddhism historically, but over a period of several centuries there was a gradual conversion to Islam. Their most ancient beliefs were in a “Mother Goddess,” and the lives of the common people of Champa were centered on ancestor worship. Islam arrived in Cambodia via India and Malaysia. Those living in the rural areas now mix Islam with their indigenous culture and animistic elements, resulting in folk Islam. The spiritual center for the Cham Muslims of Cambodia is Chur-Changvra, near Phnom Penh.

The Outlook for the Cham of Cambodia

In Cambodia, there are several different Islamic groups. The Chang Veng group of villages tends to mix more Malay words with their vocabulary because of their strong connection with and support received from Muslims in Malaysia. The Imam San group has fewer connections with the outside Muslim world because of their stance on animistic traditions, which is unacceptable to fundamental Muslims. The Da’wa is a missionary movement from a variety of Islamic countries outside of Cambodia. Visiting groups of Da’wa missionaries can be seen in Cham villages of Cambodia traveling from village to village, spreading their beliefs, and preaching in village mosques, where they live during their stay. The Wahhabiyya is another missionary movement similar to the Da’wa; they also preach a more fundamentalist type of Islam.

Only a few dozen Cham have been reached with the gospel. There are no known churches and no Bible in the Cham language.

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Flag of Cambodia

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Map of Cambodia

Prayer requests:

* The Islamic missionaries need to come to Christ. May God open the eyes of the Cham to see the truth so that they will come to know Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

* Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send more workers to reach the Cham for Christ.

* Pray for safety and protection for those already working among the Cham.

* Pray for the spiritual growth in grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ for Cham believers.

Background on Cambodia (World Factbook)

Most Cambodians consider themselves to be Khmers, descendants of the Angkor Empire that extended over much of Southeast Asia and reached its zenith between the 10th and 13th centuries. Attacks by the Thai and Cham (from present-day Vietnam) weakened the empire ushering in a long period of decline. The king placed the country under French protection in 1863. Cambodia became part of French Indochina in 1887. Following Japanese occupation in World War II, Cambodia gained full independence from France in 1953. In April 1975, after a five-year struggle, Communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh and evacuated all cities and towns. At least 1.5 million Cambodians died from execution, forced hardships, or starvation during the Khmer Rouge regime under POL POT. A December 1978 Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside, began a 10-year Vietnamese occupation, and touched off almost 13 years of civil war. The 1991 Paris Peace Accords mandated democratic elections and a ceasefire, which was not fully respected by the Khmer Rouge. UN-sponsored elections in 1993 helped restore some semblance of normalcy under a coalition government. Factional fighting in 1997 ended the first coalition government, but a second round of national elections in 1998 led to the formation of another coalition government and renewed political stability. The remaining elements of the Khmer Rouge surrendered in early 1999. Some of the remaining leaders are awaiting trial by a UN-sponsored tribunal for crimes against humanity. National elections in July 2008 were relatively peaceful, as were commune council elections in June 2012.

Economy of Cambodia

In 1999, the first full year of peace in 30 years, the government made progress on economic reforms. In 2005, exploitable oil and natural gas deposits were found beneath Cambodia’s territorial waters, representing a new revenue stream for the government once commercial extraction begins in the coming years. Fully 75% of the population remains engaged in subsistence farming. More than 50% of the population is less than 21 years old. The population lacks education and productive skills, particularly in the poverty-ridden countryside, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic infrastructure.

About Cambodia

Population: 15,205,539 (July 2012 est.) * See Population note at the bottom. World rank #69

Life Expectancy at Birth: 63.41 years. World rank #179

Ethnic groups: Khmer 90%, Vietnamese 5%, Chinese 1%, other 4%

Religions: Buddhist 96.4%, Muslim 2.1%, other 1.3%, unspecified 0.2%

Languages: Khmer (official) 95%, French, English

Literacy: 73.9% — Male: 82.8%, Female: 65.9%

School life expectancy: 10 years

Population Note: estimates for this country explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS; this can result in lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality and death rates, lower population and growth rates, and changes in the distribution of population by age and sex than would otherwise be expected.


External Link: In Cambodia, the percentage of uneducated Muslim people is high … more so among the Cham. The Cambodian Muslim Students Association conducted a survey on education, women’s education and …


About the Cham in Cambodia: Video

Demo Chams from Germain P on Vimeo.


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