Christian School Draws Critics Over its Pursuit of ‘Values’

About four years ago, Rathpan Vichka, 20, intended to become a Buddhist monk. Today he is a Christian, studying and teaching creation science-science based on the Bible’s account of creation-at Logos International School in Tuol Kok district.

“A lot of people say it was a coincidence, but I always tell myself it wasn’t,” he said. “It was really the preparation God has planned for me.”

As he was about to enter the pagoda, Rathpan Vichka’s family had to leave town unexpectedly, far from a pagoda. He went with them. His family had hoped he would become a monk, too, he said, but that course was soon forgotten.

“It was back in 1998 when I was out of school, because I had finished 12th grade, but I didn’t have enough money to go to college, and I was unemployed,” he said. “I had nothing to do, and then one day I heard about this couple that came to Cambodia.”

Steve and Jill Fish had recently arrived in Phnom Penh from the US. They were taking over an abandoned orphanage. Rathpan Vichka met the couple, befriended them, and soon they hired him to help care for the children in the orphanage.

The orphanage grew and so did the couple’s ideas for helping Cambodia, a mission Steve Fish refers to as God’s calling.

Fish, a tall, rangy man of 34, said he had worried about the low success rate of orphanages in Asia. He did not want his charges leaving the home to while their lives away aimlessly, much less miserably.

Fish and his wife turned their focus to education. Home schooling at the orphanage became more rigorous. Plans for a school took shape. Its doors opened two months ago.

Fish said Logos International School has three goals: To provide opportunities for poor Cambodian children, to offer the children of foreign Christian families an appropriate learning environment and to help the country by producing good citizens.

Fish believes good citizens adhere to certain values. Values he has found in Christianity-honor, sacrifice, resolve, chivalry, respect. He and Logos’ staff of about 15 volunteers hope to instill these qualities in their 125 students.

“We want to [teach] values that any parent can agree with,” Fish said. “They’re values that are disintegrating everywhere. It is a fight to keep them.”

Children from 26 countries are enrolled at Logos, and of the roughly 50 percent who are Cambodian, some are destitute and some are middle class. Those families who can afford to pay tuition do, and their payments cover the expenses of the orphans and the children from poorer families. Fish and his wife pay the maximum amount-$165 a month for each of their two boys.

Fish said the school’s mix of social and economic classes is an asset that gives the students a better understanding of Cambodia’s needs.

“The rich kids don’t do any better than the poor kids either,” he added. They have their own handicaps from their lives, like Gameboy and Nintendo video games, which hamper their minds and distract them from more enriching activities, he said.

Although the school is not affiliated with any Christian mission or denomination, the Bible is an important text at Logos. It is a moral guide, but it is also the basis for much of the school’s teachings in science and history. “We don’t teach it dogmatically, although for me it’s dogmatic,” Fish said. “It’s what I feel saves me and nothing else…. But we don’t tell the kids that.”

The Cambodian Constitution, while declaring Buddhism the national faith, guarantees freedom of religion. But there are restrictions on proselytism that were put forth in a 1999 joint directive by the Ministry of Cults and Religion and the Ministry of the Interior. Attempting to convert Khmer minors to a foreign religion-as Christianity is considered to be-is not allowed.

“We have to be very careful not to proselytize,” Fish said. “What I tell my staff is that there are families here that are not Christian and you cannot proselytize them. For us, as Christians, it’s also biblical. It’s not our job to proselytize to minors. A kid is a responsibility to their parents. We are in submission to the parents…completely.”

Fish said he interviews parents of prospective students and carefully explains Logos’ mission to them. “We really want to know about the family, have references from them, and know that they are really in agreement with this school and that we can work together long term.”

But one father, a foreigner who recently removed his child from Logos, said that although the school had been up front about its beliefs, he wasn’t prepared for the amount of influence Christianity would hold in the classroom.

The father, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that one afternoon his daughter came home from the second grade and asked him if he believed in Jesus Christ. “I said no, and she told me I’d be going to the fire,” he said.

“The curriculum is the Bible,” the father said, adding that one of his daughter’s spelling lessons included the sentence, “The wages of sin are death.”

Among the textbooks in Logos’ library is “Exploring Creation With Biology,” which warns students of science’s limitations: “As a pursuit of flawed human beings, science will always be flawed. Because the Bible was inspired by one who is perfect, the Bible is perfect. As long as we keep this simple fact in mind, our study of science will be greatly rewarding.”

The grade 4 science text begins its chapter on weather with, “On the second day of creation, God separated earth and sky. God made the atmosphere.” This introduction is followed by a description of the five layers of the atmosphere and the forces working within them.

Fish, who is likely to quote the Bible, Aristotle and Stephen Hawking in a 15-minute conversation, maintains that Logos’ curriculum is balanced. He said upperclassmen read Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species”-the seminal manifesto for the theory of evolution-among many other secular works.

“We want the children to understand both [creationism and evolution], and that we don’t teach either one as fact. We say, ‘Here is what creationism believes right now,'” Fish said.

The goal of education is to teach how to think, Fish said. “Without [the theory of] evolution I don’t think math would have been pushed to where it is now…. When you have competing ideas, the envelope is pushed.”

Chea Cheath, the municipal education official in charge of Phnom Penh’s primary schools, said the city is now home to nine Christian schools. Fish said other organizations are developing plans to establish more.

Despite the government’s tacit welcoming of Christian groups and Christian money to Cambodia, there is no shortage of criticism for their work here. An education official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he has written the Ministry of Education to complain about Christian schools converting students.

“The religious education should happen in the church, not the school,” he said. “Our law allows people to accept whatever religion they want, but to convince naive children of a religion through education is wrong…. This will cause a religious conflict in the future. The children will feud with the parents when they are Christian and the parents are Buddhist.”

Rathpan Vichka admitted that his conversion caused some friction between him and his father, a devout Buddhist. Since then, however, his mother and sister have joined a Khmer Christian church. He said that some day soon his father also will be ready to leave Buddhism for Christianity.

Religion aside, Logos’ students appear to be doing well. The US students who took standardized tests during trips home all scored about 10 percentage points higher than their age group’s average, Fish claimed.

After four years under Fish’s tutelage, Rathpan Vichka has been offered scholarships from Bible colleges in the US. He plans to attend one in the state of Wisconsin next year. He said he will study the Bible and creation science with a focus on horticulture. Then he wants to return to Cambodia and help modernize the country’s agricultural practices.

Rathpan Vichka expects to be the first in a long line of Logos graduates to study abroad, and he feels a pioneer’s responsibility to excel. He said he sees Logos students succeeding as evangelists, pastors, business people and wherever they apply themselves.

“One thing I’m really sure of is that all the Logos graduates, they will be out equipped with the solid fundamental Christian perspective,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)

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