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Plugging the Planet Into the Word

Children in Rong Domriex, Cambodia, learn to read by following along in their books as they listen to a New Testament passage read on tape.
Children in Rong Domriex, Cambodia, learn to read by following along in their books as they listen to a New Testament passage read on tape. (By Mary Jordan -- The Washington Post)

They are also employing new technology, including the solar-powered MegaVoice digital audio player and "Talking Bibles" that look like a book but at the touch of a button tell biblical stories. In the past two years, tens of thousands of them have been distributed in countries from Egypt to Sri Lanka.

Even the phone is now delivering the Bible. In South Africa, more than 20,000 people have signed up this year to download the entire book onto their cellphones.

ChristianMobile, the firm that offers the service, said young people particularly like the cellphone Bible, which allows them to search for and read passages while waiting in line or on a bus.

A Right to Choose

Some Cambodian Buddhists have complained that Christian missionary groups are too aggressive.

In June, government officials issued a public reminder of a ban on door-to-door proselytizing and the offering of food or other aid only to those who join churches.

Thousands of Christian missionaries have flooded into Cambodia, which is about the size of Oklahoma, since the early 1990s. Devastated by the Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s, during which an estimated 1.7 million people were killed or died of starvation, and by the decade of war that followed, the nation remains impoverished, with many workers earning just a dollar or two a day.

The U.S. State Department estimates that only about 2 percent of Cambodians are Christian but that the number is growing and there are now about 2,400 churches in the country.

The country remains overwhelmingly Buddhist, with 4,000 gilded Buddhist temples filled with saffron-robed monks.

"We are getting used to globalization, but it is important to maintain our identity," said Nguon VanChanthi, director of the national Buddhist Institute. "For centuries and centuries we have been Buddhists."

But, he added, people have a right to choose their religion, and the government is grateful for the medicine, food and manpower that Christian groups are bringing. As for the Christian literacy program, he said, "If Buddhists worry about it, they should teach children to read, too."

Literacy programs similar to the one here are currently underway in many parts of the developing world, according to Bible agencies.

"It was unthinkable to have a church near a pagoda" in Cambodia a decade ago, said Arun Sok Nhep, who runs the United Bible Societies' Asia Pacific office.

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