“Significant Missionary Work Needs to be Done”

An Interview on Orthodoxy in Cambodia

In this interview, Hieromonk Paisiy (Ipate) speaks with OrthoChristian about the history and future of the Orthodox mission in Cambodia, including the challenges it faces and how we can help.

Children Day charity event in Phnom Penh Children Day charity event in Phnom Penh     

First, we’d like to get some general information on Orthodoxy in Cambodia. The latest data I saw was from 2011, reporting about 100-150 Orthodox Christians in the country at that time. What are the numbers today, and what are the backgrounds of the Orthodox faithful today?

—People should understand that the mission to Cambodia is very new and so what we can see presently is its humble beginnings. The Orthodox flock in Cambodia is still quite small today, primarily due to dramatic economic changes that have occurred in Cambodia. The expatriate (Russian) community, from which most of our believers came, decreased significantly from around 2017 and with the onset of the COVID crisis. We’ve seen many people return to their homeland over this period, and financial support for the growth of the mission, mostly from Russian donors, has decreased. A few former parishioners have moved to other countries. Others were here only temporarily with work contracts or accompanying their spouses.

The number of local converts is presently small. Two mass Baptisms happened in 2015 and 2016. Since then, there have only been individual cases. The majority came to be Orthodox Christians by kinship or through marriage, although we also have people who found the Church by themselves—sometimes accidentally, sometimes after long explorations into questions of faith.

We’re hoping that one of these recent converts will pursue plans to go to seminary. Having native clergy is key. In Thailand, converts that have become clergy have been the largest factor behind the growth of parishes there.

In Cambodia, the parishes have a very diverse number of nationalities including Russian, Cambodian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian, South African, Canadian, and American. But the profile changes as people come and go. We’re pleased that many remain “friends of the Church in Cambodia” and continue to keep in touch and support our communities in different ways.

Youth ministry: "St. George Team" preparing little gifts for the sick children at Kantha Bopha Children Hospital in Phnom Penh Youth ministry: "St. George Team" preparing little gifts for the sick children at Kantha Bopha Children Hospital in Phnom Penh     

As far as I could find, there is a church at the Bulgarian embassy, although it doesn’t have its own priest. Other than that, there are a few parishes belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church. Are there any other jurisdictions present?

—The chapel at the Bulgarian Embassy in Phnom Penh is a memorial chapel. It was built in 1993 in the memory of Bulgarian peacekeepers that lost their lives during the UN operation in Cambodia. The chapel never had a priest assigned to it, but it was a place of worship and gathering for the Orthodox community of Cambodia for many years. Infrequently, a priest passing through would serve Liturgy for the local Orthodox population. It’s a small chapel, but its wood-carved iconostasis is quite beautiful.

After the visit to Cambodia of Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, the Chairman of the Department of External Affairs of Moscow Patriarchate (now His Holiness Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia) in 2001, there was an agreement between the Bulgarian and Russian Orthodox Churches for liturgical and catechetical use of the chapel by the community of the Russian Orthodox Church in Cambodia. After being granted permission by the Bulgarian diplomatic mission, the chapel became the point of meeting for our community. The staff of the embassy continues to remain collaborative and supportive. They permit access to the chapel any time it’s needed.

In the same year (2001), the pastoral care of the Orthodox community in Cambodia was entrusted to Igumen (now Archimandrite) Oleg (Cherepanin), rector of St. Nicholas Church in Bangkok and representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Thailand. Through the assiduous work of Fr. Oleg, the Orthodox Church in Cambodia was legally registered as a religious organization in 2013, bearing the name “Orthodox Christian Church of Cambodia–Moscow Patriarchate.”

Since 2001, every year up until 2014, priests from Thailand came to Cambodia to celebrate the great feasts of Pascha and Nativity, and other occasional services. I was appointed the first permanent priest in August 2014 and arrived three months later. At the time, the construction of the St. Panteleimon Church had just begun. For almost a year and a half I served both parishes in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. A second priest, Fr. Roman Postnikov, was appointed in January 2016, and after a short period of acclimatization and due to my appointment to the newly opened Orthodox Pastoral School in Thailand, he remained in charge of both parishes until 2017, when a new priest was sent for the Phnom Penh parish.

At the moment, the Orthodox mission in Cambodia is represented by the Moscow Patriarchate only.

St. George Church in Phnom Penh St. George Church in Phnom Penh     

So there are two parishes in Cambodia now? How many parishioners are in each parish?

—Well, actually two parishes and one mission. From the very beginning there was a vision for three parishes in the three main cities—Phnom Penh (the capital), Sihanoukville (a significant seaside city where many Russians were working and living), and Siem Reap (a tourism hotspot where the ancient temple complex Angor Wat is). Land was procured in all three cities and two churches have been built. First was the church in Sihanoukville (2014–2015) dedicated to St. Panteleimon, and the second in Phnom Penh (2015–2017) dedicated to St. George. When funds and circumstances permit, a church will be built in Siem Reap. Due to the socio-economic situation, such a project is presently out of reach for some time. Our main financial support has historically come from Russia.


Presently, both churches in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville have a dedicated priest. The small Orthodox community in Siem Reap is under the pastoral care of Sihanoukville parish’s rector. All parishes are grouped in a deanery, as part of the Diocese of Thailand of the Exarchate of Southeast Asia. Phnom Penh is the second cathedral city of the diocese, the bishop bearing the title “of Bangkok and Phnom Penh.” Now the interim head of the diocese is His Eminence Sergiy, Metropolitan of Singapore, who is very supportive and whom we dearly love.

As discussed previously, we’ve lost many of our members the last few years. In 2021, Phnom Penh had around 35 registered members and Sihanoukville around 15. There are just a few faithful living in Siem Reap now.

What language are the services celebrated in?

—Usually Church Slavonic, English and Khmer. The sermons are given in Russian and English, and at Great Feasts also in Khmer.

Besides Orthodox, Cambodian Christians are divided between Catholics, various Protestant groups, and various sects such as the Mormons. Meanwhile, about 98% of the population identifies as Theravada Buddhists. Have you found that any of these groups seem to be more receptive to Orthodoxy in Cambodia?   

—The majority of the converts are former Buddhists. From my personal observations, Orthodoxy is of less interest for other Christian congregations in Cambodia. Some of them visit our churches, but mostly because of the building architecture or interest in the Byzantine Rite.

Epistle reading in Khmer by Yuhan Hakrtey Epistle reading in Khmer by Yuhan Hakrtey     

The Cambodian people are not profoundly hostile to Christianity. Christianity is seen as a religion from Europe, the United States, or even Korea. They perceive it as the religion of more successful, educated people. Cambodians are also respectful to Europeans and Americans, and thereby to their religion as well. However, there is little awareness of the differences in Christian groups, and Orthodoxy appears to be just one of an array of Christian selections. In the countryside, awareness of Christianity is much less profound. Significant missionary work needs to be done.

Do Cambodian Christians tend to be “orthodox” in belief, or is their Christianity mixed with Buddhism?

—Our parishioners are engaged in what I call “faith study” on a regular basis, every Sunday after brunch in the church refectory. They can ask questions and propose topics of discussion. I find that not only among visitors, but even among baptized Orthodox Christians their “Orthodoxy” is at times diluted with heterodox, even pagan ideas—or just simple ignorance.

Although we try our best to help the converts follow our Lord Jesus Christ according to the faith of the Orthodox Church, we must show understanding and patience where they fall short.


Due to the difficulties people face, not only in converting, but living the Orthodox faith, we’ve decided to extend the catechumenate period from six months to a minimum of one year, or even more. Ideally this gives catechumens the necessary time to learn the faith both intellectually and experientially, allowing them to acquire the Orthodox Christian lifestyle.

What connections between Therevada Buddhism and Orthodoxy are you able to draw to try to help people move into the Church? For instance, it seems Buddhist monasticism and monasteries are at the center of religious life in Cambodia, but at the same time, so are doctrines such as reincarnation, which of course we reject.

—In my opinion it’s difficult to draw connections between Buddhism and Christianity, the doctrines and spirituality of the two being completely different. There are nominal similarities—they have monastics, we have monastics. They have prayer beads, we have prayer ropes. They have prayers in a liturgical language, we have prayers in a liturgical language. However, the purpose these things serve and how they are practiced is totally different.

In the eyes of regular people, Christianity is still viewed by many as a foreign religion. To these people it’s a religion acceptable only for the foreigners who work or live temporarily in Cambodia. Due to the fact that foreigners tend to just “pass through” and not establish roots, their beliefs seem to be inauthentic and contrary to what it means to really be Khmer.

On top of this, Cambodians tend to not really understand their own practice of Buddhism. Their beliefs are syncretistic, mixed with animism and literal Chinese ancestor worship. The latter is growing in popularity as having supposed Chinese ancestry sets a family apart as “better” in the eyes of others. They are quite syncretistic on the popular level and there are many “nominal” Buddhists for this reason. On top of this, let’s not forget the great tragedy that occurred just less than a half century ago, when the Khmer Rouge regime destroyed and/or exiled the whole intellectual elite of the Khmer, including the clergy. That was a trauma from which it’s quite difficult to recover. Its consequences are still felt in the daily life of the Khmer.

Don’t misunderstand me. There are great positive changes in Cambodian society at many levels. Freedom of religion is a fruit of this change, but not everything that is legal is also acceptable or interesting for Khmer people.

Of course, the monasteries (temples, pagodas) are the center of Buddhist religious life and the monks are held in high respect. They can travel from house to house, store to store, and receive alms in exchange for a blessing. This is ubiquitous in Cambodia. But, as I said before, this element is too small to “help” people in conversion to Christianity. There’s some visual similarity with our practices, but in reality, it’s an entrenched way of thinking entirely different from our own.

Therevada Buddhism rejects the idea that pudgala or “person” is anything more than a conceptual designation. This would seem to be a major hurdle to overcome to embrace Orthodoxy, where the Person of Jesus Christ is the very heart of our faith. Have you had to deal with this issue with anyone? If so, how did you go about it?

—That’s a very interesting and difficult question, but due to most Cambodians being only nominally Buddhist, they tend to not intellectually interact with their faith on that profound of a doctrinal level. They understand karma, doing good and getting good in the life to come, receiving blessings, warding off evil spirits with charms, benefitting from the prayers of ancestors for those who allege a Chinese ancestor, and basic things like this. What you are positing is a more profound issue for converting a Buddhist monk or cleric of some sort, but we have no outreach to these presently.

More powerful than any intellectual argument, of course, would be a direct revelation of the Personal God, Jesus Christ. Are you aware of any Orthodox in Cambodia having such an experience?

—I have heard that among Muslims it’s common to have dreams about Jesus Christ, and this becomes instrumental in their conversions. One Cambodian I know of, but who is not Orthodox, had a dream of a church with a cross on the front and this became a motivation to attend church somewhat regularly. So, such experiences exist. In general, where I am in the city, Cambodians have “common knowledge” about Christianity’s existence and the idea that Jesus Christ is what the foreigners consider God. The real challenge is for them to be motivated to get to know that God. In our parishes, this tends to be something that family and work relations have brought up.

St. George's community after the Nativity service St. George's community after the Nativity service     

What are the Orthodox mission’s biggest needs right now? A prayer book and the text of the Liturgy have been published in Khmer—are there any other projects under way?

—We’re in a particularly difficult situation at the moment. Due to the socio-political situation, we’re cut off from the vast preponderance of our donors, which are in Russia. Presently, the greatest need is to find a sustainable financing source, or sources, to cover our basic needs. We’ve worked hard to stretch every dollar, which is a commonly used currency in Cambodia, and “make it count.”

To pay for each parish’s salaries, utilities, visas, licenses, and basic necessities for operation costs approximately $20,000 per year. We’re happy to share detailed budgets if anyone is interested and would welcome special collections or consistent support, such as a parish that wants to “adopt” one of ours. Before doing any proper catechetical and missionary work, we need to first cover these essentials. With a small and relatively poor community, the task sometimes feels enormous!

As for missionary projects, presently the main work now is in translating materials to make Orthodoxy more accessible and help our Cambodian parishioners have a fuller prayer life. At the moment we have a couple of catechetical booklets published and others ready for publication as soon as we have funds to print them. Works in progress include the second editions of the Prayer Book and the Divine Liturgy, as well as an ambitious project of an Abridged Horologion. The cost for these projects is around $3,000.

Some of the extensive damage to St. George’s Church Some of the extensive damage to St. George’s Church     

Most pressingly, I recently received some terrible news. We’ve known for a couple years that St. George’s Church in Phnom Penh requires some degree of renovation. Evaluations from several contractors have informed us of this. We were of course skeptical, because the building is only five years old. Now, we have received word from a trustworthy firm that circumstances are especially dire. Due to the harsh climate (with abundant rain during the monsoon season and high temperatures) and, perhaps, poor materials and construction techniques, the building deteriorated quickly and a complete renovation is needed. The building’s literally crumbling from the roof to the walls, going all the way to the ground. The construction companies we contacted had proposed quotations ranging from $25,000 to $35,000. If I may, I would like to use this opportunity to humbly ask everyone’s help to complete this project. We pray for all our donors and of course God knows who they are.

This is the second cathedral of our diocese and it would be an extreme loss to lose the building. Sadly, the expertise of those of us in the parishes is insufficient to fix the building.

We need to bring the Gospel to Cambodia. We also need a firm footing in order to establish roots and thrive. Long term, I would like to see at least one monastery in Cambodia, a library, a school, a charity—anything is possible if God wills it. The Church has to be both present and offer to the Cambodian people something they need spiritually, intellectually, and physically. Regular support is important to not only keep things running for the present, but to make significant missionary work and parish growth possible.

Are there any major social issues that the people face that the Church can help with—drugs and alcohol, poverty, etc.?

—Despite Cambodia’s economic transformation, there’s still widespread poverty in the country and even in the cities where we live. Both parishes are involved in charity work as our resources allow. As for longer-term needs, we’re in the process of creating an account to deal specifically with charity, particular in the area of medical care and education. As our resources are very limited, we welcome any financial support one can offer to help in our mission. Every gift is important and greatly appreciated.

According to your biography, you graduated from the Faculty of Orthodox Theology at Bucharest State University in 2011 and then you began serving in Cambodia in 2014. Can you fill in the gaps for us? How did you go from studying in Romania to serving in the Russian mission in Cambodia?

—Having been born and raised in the Republic of Moldova, I started my monastic life in 1998 at the Monastery of St. George in Suruceni village (near the capital city Chișinău) and continued it at Holy Trinity Monastery in the village of Saharna, on the shore of the Dniester River. My mother tongue is Romanian (called Moldovan in Moldova), but since my country was part of the Soviet Union until 1989, my generation studied the Russian language from second grade. Television and radio programs were often in Russian, so I can say that I grew up bilingual, even if in the family we always spoke Romanian.

In 2006, I applied to the Faculty of Orthodox Theology of Bucharest University. After receiving a Masters degree in 2011, I continued my studies at the Doctoral School of the same university, researching the liturgical life of the Russian Orthodox Church and preparing a PhD thesis in this field. In 2014, the opportunity to serve in Southeast Asia came up, and I decided to go. This wasn’t an accident or coincidence. My first visit to Thailand happened in 2009 at the invitation of my Romanian friends, who happened to be parishioners of St. Nicholas Church in Bangkok. There I met Fr. Oleg (Cherepanin), who at the time was responsible for the pastoral care of the Orthodox Christians in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. At his invitation, I accepted the move. I was appointed to serve the parishes in Cambodia. First, I spent a few months in Thailand, where I was instructed and helped by Fr. Oleg to adapt to my new surroundings. Afterwards, I moved to Phnom Penh.

In June 2016, I was appointed as vice-rector of the newly established Orthodox Pastoral School in Phuket, Thailand, and moved there. In March 2019, I was re-appointed to Cambodia and given the position of the acting Dean of the Deanery of Cambodia.

Fr. Paisiy, thank you very much for taking time to speak with us to help us learn about the mission in Cambodia.

—You’re welcome, and God bless!

St. George Church in Phnom Penh St. George Church in Phnom Penh     

Donations for the Church in Cambodia can be sent by bank transfer or via PayPal, using the information below:

  • Intermediary Bank: Standard Chartered Bank, New York

  • SWIFT Code: SCBLUS33

  • Beneficiary Bank’s Name: Advanced Bank of Asia Limited


  • Beneficiary’s Bank address: 148, Preah Sihanouk Blvd, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

  • Beneficiary’s Account Name: Orthodox Christian Church of Cambodia Moscow Patriarchate

  • Beneficiary’s Account No.: 000 089 566

  • Beneficiary’s contact details: No D70, Street 109KA, Phum Kbal Domrey, Sangkat Kakab, Khan Posenchey, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

PayPal: You can also use PayPal. As Cambodian banks don’t have the service of cashing PayPal funds, the donations trough this service are received by the Church’s friend Craig Truglia, who subsequently uses other ways to send the money.

e-mail: craigtruglia@gmail.com

Learn more about the Church in Cambodia at its official website.

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