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Christianity Takes Hold in Cambodia

January 22, 2000

BATTAMBANG, Cambodia (AP) _ Children swimming in the Thakee River erupt in giggles when the first few converts, dunked beneath the surface, emerge with water sputtering from their noses.

As hymns soar from a riverbank choir, bemused motorists stop to gawk at the spectacle from a nearby bridge.

In a country where Buddhism has been the chief religion for more than 800 years, Christianity is gaining a firm foothold. Over the last 10 years, the number of Cambodian Christians has grown from 200 to an estimated 60,000, says Steven Westergren of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

``The growth is typical of countries that have come out of a communist situation, out of a deprived situation,″ Westergren says in his office in Phnom Penh. ``The isolation and violence created a vacuum, an enormous vacuum. When the doors opened in 1990-91, Cambodians were like sponges ready to soak up anything _ both good and bad.″

Some are skeptical, however, that Cambodia’s new Christians are true converts. Critics assert that many missionary groups tie conversions to assistance _ digging wells, building schools and distributing food only after a poverty-stricken village agrees to a new church.

This produces so-called ``rice-bowl Christians,″ they say _ superficial converts interested only in the accompanying aid.

The pastor on the Thakee riverbank is taken aback by suggestions his work might be motivated by foreign aid and insists his Protestant congregation does not dangle rewards in front of new members.

He is the Rev. Christopher LaPel, a former Cambodian refugee schooled in Los Angeles who baptizes almost 90 converts in a little over an hour.

``We don’t take food and trade with them,″ LaPel says, gesturing with his hand to the baptismal riverbank. ``This is love.″

Twenty-one years ago, LaPel, the son of a palace official, was among thousands of Cambodians herded to the Thai border by the Khmer Rouge after Vietnam invaded and toppled that genocidal regime.

Starving and confused after four years in communist farming collectives, most of the refugees wound up in camps where Christian aid workers gave them food, shelter and Khmer-language Bibles.

LaPel says the story of Jesus ``cut to my heart″ and prompted instant conversion. ``I gave my life to the Lord,″ he recalls. ``Christ spared my life from the killing fields.″

He emigrated to the United States in 1980, living in Lincoln, Neb., and Los Angeles, where he attended college. When the Cold War ended and Cambodia reopened, LaPel and other returning converts became front-line missionaries.

LaPel reasons that many in Cambodia lost faith in Buddhism after the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule and the harsh decade of Vietnamese occupation that followed.

``The Buddha never promised salvation,″ LaPel says. ``He claimed only to be a good teacher, but a lot of Cambodians are looking for a messiah _ someone to save them.″

LaPel made international headlines last year when it was revealed he had ``saved″ one of Cambodia’s most infamous killers _ Duch, director of the Khmer Rouge’s central prison Tuol Sleng, where up to 20,000 Cambodians, accused as political enemies, were tortured and killed.

Duch, using a false name, Hong Pin, began attending LaPel’s sermons in 1996. Timid and sullen at first, he kept to the back of the church and watched silently as the pastor led the service with a 12-string guitar strapped across his chest.

In time, the incognito killer moved to the front pew. He took notes on LaPel’s sermons and peppered him with Bible questions. Soon after, he was baptized.

``Hong Pin″ hinted only once to LaPel how much blood was on his hands.

``He said, `Pastor Christopher, I’m a sinner. I don’t think my brothers and sisters around me can forgive me because my sins are so deep,‴ LaPel recalls.

A Western photographer visiting northwestern Cambodia last year recognized Duch, a bit grayer at 56 years but otherwise unchanged from his portrait hanging in Tuol Sleng, now a museum of the genocide.

He was arrested and now awaits the outcome of negotiations between Cambodia and the United Nations on formation of a genocide tribunal.

LaPel calls Duch a model convert _ a man who has pledged to confess his sins and be a star witness in a trial so other ex-Khmer Rouge will also face justice. Most observers agree that Duch appears a changed man, but there is plenty of disagreement over the faith of many others, the ``rice-bowl Christians.″

``I think for some Cambodians, conversion is not a big deal. They `convert,′ but they remain Buddhist,″ says Linda Hartky of Church World Service, a Christian aid group in New York City that does not engage in missionary activities.

Yin Soeum, a 33-year-old Cambodian who grew up in a refugee camp, agrees. Although he is grateful for the education he received in a church-run school, Soeum says he resented religious conversion being linked to extra food or passage to the West.

He asserts that the practice continues today in Christian organizations that offer well-paying jobs to young Cambodians, who in turn play a vital role in converting rural peasants in villages where aid is given.

``If our country was not so torn by war, I don’t think it would be like this,″ says Soeum, who lives in Phnom Penh. ``That’s why Christians are considered so good. They offer jobs and give people money.″

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