Soils of suffering Forty years after the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge,
the Cambodian church has multiplied but hopes a new generation can move beyond the pain of the past
On a Sunday morning in Phnom Penh, motorcycles, SUVs, and colorful tuk-tuks (motorcycle-pulled rickshaws) try to squeeze past each other on a busy road. Off the main drag and next to a multistoried mall stands New Life Fellowship, its open doors facing an indoor shoe market. Inside, past the megachurch’s coffee shop, greeters hold open doors to a dark, air-conditioned sanctuary where hundreds of young Cambodians have gathered for worship. Colored lights flash as rock-concert-style worship music booms loud enough for shoppers next door to hear.
“God, you love me, how you love me / Your heart for me will never change” read the lyrics in both English and Khmer as the congregants jump, dance, and sing along.
After nearly an hour of worship music, Pastor Jesse McCaul addresses the congregation in fluent Khmer about the need to hear God’s voice. He then declares 2019 a year of greatness for God’s people.
With more than 2,000 congregants each week, the charismatic New Life Fellowship is one of the largest churches in Cambodia. Churches of this size in Phnom Penh would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, when Christians had to meet secretly in homes and could be arrested for carrying a Bible. Today, churches of all sizes—megachurches, 100-member churches, and smaller cell groups—meet on Sunday mornings all over the country.
January marked 40 years since the end of the Khmer Rouge, a communist regime that wiped out a quarter of Cambodia’s population and devastated the country. After the regime fell from power, fighting between the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge, and noncommunist factions continued for the next decade, ending with a peace treaty and United Nations–backed elections in the early 1990s.
Despite billions of dollars in foreign aid and the government’s claims of democracy, Cambodia runs on a corrupt, patronage-based political system headed by strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has maintained power for the past 34 years. Still, most Cambodians are grateful to live in peace and to see their standard of living improve: Cambodia’s per capita income quadrupled from 1993 to 2013.
Miraculously, the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge opened the door for Christianity to permeate the Buddhist country. The number of Cambodian Christians has increased from likely only a few hundred believers in 1979 to 470,000 in 2010—3 percent of the population, according to Operation World. Today Christians worship and evangelize freely, with the promise from Hun Sen that they won’t face persecution as long as they stay out of politics and don’t criticize the government.
While New Life Fellowship’s size points to the remarkable growth of Christianity in the country, its youthful congregation reflects a new generation of believers many local pastors and ministry leaders are counting on as the future of the Cambodian church at large. The church in Cambodia today faces particular challenges as many of its leaders lack education and theological training, churchgoers give little to offering plates, and prospective pastors are lured away from the pulpit by higher-paying nonprofit jobs. In a country where 65 percent of the population is under 30 years old, many see the younger generation as a new hope, a group that grew up in relative peace without the scars of past persecution that the older generations carry.
CAMBODIA’S CHRISTIAN MOVEMENT was largely sown in the soils of tribulation.
When Chhinho Saing was a toddler, the peasant soldiers of the Khmer Rouge marched into Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh, overthrew the Khmer Republic, and forced the city’s residents out into rural areas in an attempt to create a new agrarian utopia. Under the brutal leadership of Pol Pot, 1.7 million Cambodians would die of starvation, forced labor, or execution in the next 3½ years.
The genocide ended only after Vietnamese troops captured Phnom Penh on Jan. 7, 1979. In Battambang province where Chhinho Saing’s family lived, conflicting reports buzzed among the survivors: Some claimed they needed to move into Vietnamese-controlled territory for safety, while others urged staying put. Chhinho Saing’s father wanted to move, but his mother feared it was a trick to kill Cambodians. In the end, Chhinho Saing’s father took him, his brother, and three sisters with him while his mother, grandmother, and eldest brother stayed behind.
A few days later, those who stayed behind received confirmation that they would be safe in Vietnamese territory, so they started the journey to reunite with the rest of the family. But before they could reach them, Khmer Rouge soldiers cut off the route. Neighbors reported to Chhinho Saing’s father that they had seen three dead bodies on the side of the road: a young man, a middle-aged woman, and an elderly woman.
Although Chhinho Saing had grown up in a Buddhist family, during the horror of the Khmer Rouge his father remembered the gospel message he had heard from a relative. Afterward, he told his children that they were a Christian family and would not worship in Buddhist temples like their neighbors. Chhinho Saing and his siblings didn’t know what it meant to be a Christian, but obeyed.
One day, the family bought a small radio, and while turning the dial they heard a radio announcer mention the name “Jesus Christ.” Intrigued, they started listening each morning and evening to the Christian program, aired by the Far East Broadcasting Company. Every day as the preacher on the radio asked listeners to repeat the sinner’s prayer, they followed along and prayed.
In 1990, the first Christian and Missionary Alliance church opened in Battambang, and Chhinho Saing felt elated to hear the preaching of the Bible in person. He decided that he too wanted to be a pastor. Chhinho Saing was the first student at the Phnom Penh Bible School when it opened in 1992. Today the 45-year-old is the head of Shalom Mission Cambodia, which has 30 churches throughout the country, a Bible school, a Christian school, and after-school English programs.
Many other Cambodians came to profess Christ while living in refugee camps along the Thai border after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Foreign missionaries evangelized the survivors, and many who had lost faith in Buddhism during the genocide found hope in Christ. Missionaries sponsored the converts to move to the United States, and while some fell away, others became pastors of Khmer congregations. When Cambodia opened its doors in 1990, the Cambodian diaspora returned home to visit relatives and share the gospel.
Underground churches also emerged in the ’80s. Heng Cheng, an ethnically Chinese fourth-generation Christian, was a high-school teacher when the Khmer Rouge took over. His job could have resulted in a death sentence, but he escaped to Vietnam, where he reconnected with his Christian faith and studied at a secret Bible school. In 1984, he returned to Cambodia to start an underground church for Cambodian, Chinese, and Vietnamese believers. For five years they met secretly in homes on different days of the week to avoid detection, their numbers growing to 100 people meeting in groups of 20.
The Cambodian government began to recognize Christianity in 1990, and its new constitution in 1993 guaranteed citizens freedom of religion. Authorities gave Heng Cheng’s church permission to gather openly, and he started the first Assemblies of God church in Cambodia. The 1993 elections also opened the door for foreigners to come in, including missionaries and Christian aid groups that were allowed to evangelize openly.
In 1996, churches created the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, an umbrella organization bringing together different denominations, with Heng Cheng as its first general secretary. Today the fellowship represents about half of all the churches in Cambodia.
Chhinho Saing remembers how quickly Christianity grew in those early years. During the day, he and his classmates would study under missionaries at the Phnom Penh Bible School, then do evangelism and church-planting ministries after class. “Everyone was excited and wanted to serve the Lord,” Chhinho Saing said.
The introduction of missionaries and aid groups into Cambodia brought both benefits and challenges. On the one hand, many of the groups were able to tackle pressing issues like sex trafficking, community development, land mine injuries, and education. On the other hand, churchgoers began to rely on foreign funds to pay pastors and grew accustomed to receiving rather than giving. Pastors tried to inflate the number of converts in their reports in order to increase donations.
Christian nongovernmental organizations also sought to hire Bible school graduates, some of whom jumped at the opportunity to avoid pastoral jobs at rural churches and instead stay in the city and work at organizations providing high pay, a consistent work schedule, and opportunities to travel. Chhinho Saing points to this shift as a factor behind a recent slowdown in the growth of Christianity, along with another factor: a lack of education and Biblical understanding among Cambodian pastors—a lingering consequence of the Khmer Rouge’s anti-education policies.
THE SCARS OF THE BRUTAL genocide remain on the people and land of Cambodia. Along the roads of Phnom Penh, tuk-tuk drivers accost foreign tourists and ask a little too cheerfully: “Tuk-tuk to the Killing Field?” At Choeung Ek Killing Fields where 1 million people were executed, tattered clothing and human bones continue to emerge out of the dirt-filled pits after rainfalls. At Tuol Sleng, a school-turned-prison, walls still bear the marks and scratches of the 20,000 prisoners held there, many tortured in those classrooms. Only a handful of the prisoners survived, and two of them spend their days at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, signing books and talking to tourists about their experiences.
Other scars are harder to see. Under the Khmer Rouge, so many spies existed that even husbands and wives couldn’t be completely open with each other, and Cambodian people today still struggle with trust issues. A survival mentality has caused many Cambodians to focus on their personal security rather than the welfare of others. Many are still wrestling with anger and bitterness. These problems have carried over into the church, leading to clashes and conflict within church leadership.
Because the Khmer Rouge targeted the educated class and shut down schools, few surviving Cambodians among the middle-aged and older generations were ever fully educated. Many of the current church leaders are in their late 40s and 50s, yet some have only an elementary-level education, and others are unable even to read the Bible. Heng Cheng, the Evangelical Fellowship leader, says training these pastors has been difficult as they struggle to analyze texts or grasp complex theology. But he hopes younger, more educated Christians will carry the torch of church leadership forward.
Vuthy Son, 43, is an example of the younger generation of church leadership. Vuthy Son grew up in a refugee camp where missionaries told him the gospel and gave him a Bible. He read each page—then proceeded to smoke it, finishing the New Testament in two years. Later he came to profess faith in Christ after comparing Buddhism and Christianity and realizing the Christian God was the one true God. After Vuthy Son returned to Battambang, a pastor from the refugee camp asked to use his house for Sunday worship services. Then one day, the pastor left and never returned. Vuthy Son was only about 16 at the time, but because he could read and write, others pushed him to lead the church.
Vuthy Son attended Phnom Penh Bible School in 1996, graduated, and started a church in his hometown. He then studied at Sydney Missionary & Bible College before returning to Phnom Penh Bible School as a faculty member. He was later promoted to academic dean and three years ago became principal of the school.
Today the Bible school has a spacious campus with clusters of dorms, a red-tiled sanctuary, and a covered canteen for meals. Western professors eat lunch with 60 Khmer students, most of whom have recently graduated high school. The school now has a stricter admission process, requiring applicants to obtain a high-school diploma before they can attend.
After his experience seeing his own pastor abandon his flock, Vuthy Son has questioned whether some of the earlier Cambodian pastors were serious about their faith or were only in ministry for personal gain. As a Bible school principal, he now stresses the importance of Biblical understanding and says he spends extra time with students before graduation, encouraging them to build strong churches in Cambodia.
CHHINHO SAING HAS HIGH HOPES for his four children, who range in age from 6 to 15. He believes they can achieve great things, freed from the emotional baggage carried by previous generations. For them, the story of what their father endured under the Khmer Rouge seems far removed from current reality. “They can’t believe people would do that to each other,” Chhinho Saing explains.
Still, through all he’s experienced, Chhinho Saing sees God’s hand in Cambodia’s history.
“Why did God allow the Khmer Rouge to happen?” he asks. “We lost a lot of lives; I lost family members, so I don’t want to say this is a good thing.”
Yet Chhinho Saing believes the atrocities shook his countrymen from spiritual complacency. “After the Khmer Rouge, everything flipped upside down. People were seeking new hope, new opportunity, so were open to the gospel,” he says. “If we look at the spiritual side, the Khmer Rouge was an opportunity to open the hearts of the Cambodian people.”
—This story has been updated to correct the attribution of the New Life Fellowship photos, and to formalize the Cambodian names.
by Angela Lu Fulton in Phnom Penh, Cambodia