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Plugging the Planet Into the Word

Technology Vastly Expands Bible's Audience, Christianity's Influence

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)
VIDEO | Christianity in Cambodia
Christian groups are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to make the Bible more accessible in the world's most distant corners.
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By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 3, 2007

RONG DOMRIEX, Cambodia -- Tel Im, a barefoot 13-year-old, sat cross-legged on a bamboo bench, eager for her reading lesson.

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"Please turn to Lesson 33," said a woman's voice rising from a Sony cassette player powered by two wires clipped to a car battery. The tape was the closest thing to a school in this village shaded by banana trees, where water buffaloes meander in from the lime-green rice paddies.

Im and her classmates flipped to Page 134 for a passage from the New Testament.

"The title of this story is: 'Jesus Was Crucified,' " said the teacher on the tape, slowly pronouncing the words in Khmer, the local language, as the children followed along with their fingertips.

Six months ago, Im couldn't read a word and had never heard of Jesus. Now, thanks to a literacy program run by the local chapter of an international Bible group, she has a book -- the Bible -- that she can read, and she says she wants to become a Christian.

Using technological devices ranging from simple cassette tapes to solar-powered audio players and an iPod-like gadget called the Bible Stick, Christian groups are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to make one of the world's oldest books accessible in remote corners of the planet.

Complete versions of the Bible can now be downloaded onto cellphones in parts of Africa. To reach those who can't read -- nearly one-fifth of the world's population, according to the United Nations -- Christian groups are rapidly increasing production of audio and video versions.

Christian networks from the United States, Europe, Asia and elsewhere are working together, coordinating the efforts of people as diverse as a computer cartographer in Virginia and linguists in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

Since 2000, the Bible -- or parts of it -- has been translated into 600 more languages, making it more accessible to tens of millions more people, according to the Forum of Bible Agencies International. An additional 1,600 translation projects are underway that will leave only about 3 to 5 percent of the world's population without the best-selling book of all time available in their native language.

Building on generations of work to distribute the printed Bible, Christian missionaries said new multimedia presentations in hundreds of languages are vastly expanding the Bible's audience and spreading the influence of the world's largest religion.

"It's a movement to revitalize religion in the world, and it's huge," said Laurie Westlake of Faith Comes By Hearing, a U.S.-based nonprofit group that works in 92 countries.

This year alone, Westlake said, her organization has started 33,000 "listening groups" of people who gather to hear dramatic Bible recordings done by local people in their own languages. She said those gatherings now serve about 3 million people -- three times as many as two years ago.


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