Former Khmer Rouge leader among Cambodia's new Christians

Many Khmer Buddhists have become Christians 'because they are looking for answers'
Former Khmer Rouge leader among Cambodia's new Christians

Pastor Sok Sophon reads the Bible in the conference room of the the Cambodian office of the Christian and Missionary Alliance at the outskirts of Phnom Penh. (Photo by Enric Catala Contreras)

Sok Sophon was a battle-hardened Khmer Rouge commander when he found Jesus.

The now 63-year-old Cambodian was visiting a refugee camp, when a wounded soldier gave him a Bible. At first he was reluctant but did take it.

Then after reading from the Bible the officer of the Pol Pot regime got interested and visited a church service. "I remember who the first time I made a detour to get to the church," he says. "I didn't want people to know. I felt ashamed for going there."

It took six weeks before Sophon, who once served as a Buddhist monk in his late teens, to believe in God.

"I had a mistress at that time, I smoked a lot, I had a drinking problem," says Sophon. "So I asked the pastor what I should do. He told me: 'Keep coming back to church and God will answer you.'" 

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"I prayed to God and felt the need to be pure and do what was good. So, I stopped smoking and drinking, and I said goodbye to my mistress."

These days the former commander works with the Cambodian office of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. He also serves as a pastor in a church in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, a position he wishes to hold until his death.

Sophon is just one of thousands of Cambodians who has converted to Christianity.

As a traditionally Buddhist country, pagodas, monasteries and monks dressed in red or orange robes can be seen everywhere. But the country also has over 2,600 churches and just as with the number of Cambodians who have become Christians, that number is rising steadily.

According to Tep Samnang, executive director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, missionaries have been coming to the country for generations. But it hasn't been easy, he says.

"First, Christianity was seen as something foreign, then all religion was banned by the Khmer Rouge. It all changed with the peace agreement in 1992," says Samnang. "Soon after that missionaries came to bring the good news."

Many Khmer Buddhists, especially those who suffered during the war, have become Christians because they are looking for answers, Samnang explains.

"Buddhism mainly means you need to follow your own path. But sometimes we need God to help us to find the way. And God forgives, while in Buddhism you need to solve your own problems," he says.

Erik Davis, a professor of Religious Studies at Macalester College in the United States and an expert on religion in Cambodia, says this explanation is common for people who have newly become Christians.

"Note the similarities with conversions in the West. Similar reasons are often provided, and they tend toward 'offering or not offering me enough answers,' instead of more traditional reasons as 'because it's true or sacred,'" he says.

In Takhmao, a city close to Phnom Penh, pastor Thyven Chak gives a similar explanation.

On a Sunday morning in April, Chak is leading a service in a small home church. About 30 Cambodians have gathered around him. They sit on the floor and pray to God with deep devotion. Worn out Bibles are resting on their laps.

"When I grew up as a Buddhist I prayed a lot, but I didn't know who God was," says Chak. "When I found Christ I finally had a God to pray to. For me that's the big difference between Buddhism and Christianity. As a Buddhist, you spend a lot of time praying and searching, but God can't be found. In Christianity, Jesus has come down to find us."

This is not the only reason Christianity is gaining popularity. After the horror of the Khmer Rouge — under which an estimated 1.7 million people died — and years of civil war, many Christian aid organizations came to the country. They became involved in education and health projects, and helped fight poverty. In the meantime, they tell those they encounter about the Bible and invite people to attend church.

But becoming a Christian isn't exactly painless, Chak says.

As a teenager, he fled from his alcoholic and abusive father and came to live with his relatives in Takhmao. That went well until he started going to church.

"My uncle and my aunt were very unhappy with it," Chak recalls. "When I continued going to the church, my uncle said: 'You need to choose. You either stay here or you sleep in the church.' When I chose the church, my uncle threw me out on the streets."

Chak isn't alone in this experience. Although the Cambodian constitution offers freedom of religion, people who turn to another religion often meet resistance in their private lives.

Many Khmer people see Christianity as a Western phenomenon that doesn't fit with their Cambodian identity. In families, when a person changes his religion, this frequently leads to discrimination, tension and mistrust.

For Chak the pain was worth it. He decided to devote his life to God and became a pastor. "Finding God has brought me so many good things in life. I want other people to experience the same," Chak says.

However, the number of Cambodians who have become Christians is unclear. The government estimates that about 2 percent of the population is Christian. Others believe the number is significantly higher.

What is certain is that every year new churches are being opened. That is largely thanks to a growing popularity among young people, says Samnang Tep. "The young generation didn't suffer during the war. They move to the city, looking for a good life. The church helps them with that," Tep says.

Chak is sure more Cambodians will turn to Christianity. In his church in Takhmao a group of people is listening carefully as he reads from the Bible. When the reading is over, musicians start a hymn. The young pastor jumps up. "We will sing and dance for our love of Christ!" he says. Moments later the church-goers are dancing in joy. A high-spirited 'Hallelujah' sounds through the air.

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