During the fighting of July 5 and 6 that sent the capital into chaos, one group of people was unconcerned.
They had the cross to protect them, according to John Cottrell, the country coordinator of the NGO, Assemblies of God-Cambodia. He wasn’t referring to the eight-foot high white cross that dominates the courtyard of the Assemblies of God headquarters just off the road to the airport that was in the middle of the July fighting, but the belief in the cross and that Jesus Christ is the savior.
The five buildings—including a seminary for future AOG pastors—survived unscathed, and the organization remains one of the larger of the many Christian organizations whose mission in Cambodia ranges from spiritual guidance to humanitarian work. “We have a commitment to the Cambodian people,” said Cottrell.
Like many expat Christian workers based in Cambodia, Cottrell came here because God told him to. “In 1985, Feb 1,” he said. “I woke up and felt the presence of God around me very strongly and I had these words in French come to me—I’m a dual national French and American—Le Cambodge. Cambodia.”
Assemblies of God has churches all over the world—including several in Cambodia that are independent of the NGO—where believers gather and speak in tongues, heal by faith, believe that possession by evil causes some mental illnesses, make prophesies and practice exorcism. “[Exorcism is] not something we do everyday,” Cottrell said.
The Cambodian branch of the organization built and now runs two public schools, manages two medical clinics, runs two orphanages, provides English-language training at the Faculty of Medicine at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, works on community development, and attempts to establish and support AOG churches throughout the country. Like many Christian NGOs aiming to contribute to the rebuilding of Cambodia, establishing churches is equal to their humanitarian work. Spreading the gospel is as valuable as building a bridge. Explaining why someone should believe that Jesus Christ is savior—rebuilding from the inside—is as valid as constructing a school—rebuilding from the outside.
Their secular projects always have a spiritual side, and they frequently leave behind churches no matter what the project is supposed to be limited to. The schools that they built do not include AOG religious teachings in the curriculum but those communities developed churches during the process of building.
“AOG came in with an agreement with the Cambodian government at that time (1990),” Cottrell said. “We would come in. We would help the downtrodden, the hurting, the poor, the orphans and with that we would bring the good news about Jesus Christ. Good news because that’s what it is.”
And there’s an urgency to their work. Life is short. The world will end at some point. People must hear the word. “When Jesus was giving his last words, he gave an order to his disciples to go throughout the world and to preach the good news and then the end would come,” he said.
The member who is most famous in Cambodia is probably Mike Evans, the disgraced US evangelist who arrived in the country in 1994 promising to cure the sick. He caused riots when he failed to deliver and barely got away with his life. According to Cottrell, he has been expelled from the organization because of his behavior here.
The number of Christians in Cambodia, a predominantly Buddhist country, is clearly growing but is very difficult to count. With numerous denominations, theological differences mean that the definition of who is a Christian is different from organization to organization, individual to individual.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, one of several umbrella groups for Christian Denominations, counted 100 churches in 1994. The organization counted 700 churches here as of July 1998 and 15,000 Christians but Chhon Phan Kong, the first vice chairman is hesitant to say that Christianity is growing because he is afraid of the reaction of the general population which regards Christianity as a foreign religion.
“I can’t speak openly sometimes,” Chhon Phan Kong said during a face-to-face interview because he refused to discuss the issue by telephone. “We have to be very cautious because the impression of the population is that we are here as Christians to destroy their culture by changing the way of worship and changing beliefs of life after death.”
Mormons—famous for their pairs of 19-year-old missionaries cycling around the capital in starched white shirts and helmets—arrived in 1994 and now count four churches and 825 converts. Catholics can count another 20,000 members among 20 churches, although their conversion process requires at least three years of study and they only average 50 converts a year. The government estimates that there are just over 30,000 Christians in total but the more optimistic of Cambodia’s missionaries go for 50,000 Christians in the whole country.
Graham Chipps, pastor of the International Christian Fellowship, a Sunday evening service for expat Christian workers, said that numbers were so tough to compile because communication networks were unreliable and definitions of what a church is varies. The Evangelical Christian Fellowship counts communities as small as five people meeting in someone’s home while the Anglicans with one church plus three in development insist on a more formal structure and at least 20 people.
“One Baptist I knew went to the far Northwest to visit the Baptist church and discovered other Baptist churches he didn’t know anything about,” said Chipps. “What would often happen is a bunch of people from church would visit the relatives in the next village and tell them about Jesus. People would start to believe and a church would be started.”
Most account for this growth by the failure of Buddhism and the power of Christians, particularly those from large foreign humanitarian organizations, that can be traced back to 1970 when the Lon Nol government restored relations with the US. American Protestant missionaries poured in. According to The Cathedral of the Rice Paddy, written by Francois Ponchaud, a Catholic Priest who has lived in Cambodia on and off since 1964, Cambodians were buried in Bibles and Christian tracts from Protestants going door-to-door and some Christian NGOs connected the Christian faith directly to prosperity.
In 1973, wrote Father Ponchaud, World Vision International, an organization that is currently the largest NGO here, Christian or otherwise, offered jobs to anyone who would be baptized. Justin Byworth, the current country director, said, that that was not their current policy. “The World Vision program in the early ‘70s was a very different program from today.” He would not otherwise comment on the issue.
During the Khmer Rouge rule of 1975-1978, churches were destroyed and ministers killed. The Vietnamese-backed Communist government of 1979-1989 built public buildings on former church sites, and Christianity did not become legal again until 1990.
Where it really started to flourish in the 1980s, however, was the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodia border.
“For some, Buddhism had become dishonored,” wrote Father Ponchaud in his book. “Others were struck by the power of charitable organizations. Almost all came from Christians and even the International Red Cross was marked with the sign of the cross.”
Buddhist presence in the camps was limited to representatives from the Japan Sotoshu Relief Committee, who practice Soto Zen Buddhism which is quite different from the Theravada Buddhism practiced in Cambodia, and monks from Thailand who, according to Father Ponchaud, were more interested in building pagodas than providing for the immediate material needs of the refugees.
But the behavior of his fellow Christians—Catholics and Protestants—made him ashamed of his faith. “They said (to the refugees), you don’t believe, so God made revenge,” he said in a recent interview. “That is stupid. God is a God of Love.”
The phrase “rice Christians” is a phrase with clear origins in Asia but no one is quite sure exactly where or when it first came about. It refers to people who proclaim the Christian faith in order to get goods or other services. In the refugee camps Father Ponchaud claimed in a recent interview that he saw many “immigration Christians,” people who were baptized in order to get a baptismal certificate. The piece of paper acted as a form of ID, similar to a birth certificate, and the Christian organization that issued it would help facilitate the refugees’ journey to the US.
“Numerous Protestant groups brought their help with much discretion,” he wrote in his book. “On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon fundamentalist propagandists did not hesitate to profit by the distress of the new arrivals to recruit followers … They [promised] baptism certificates or religious teaching in exchange for facilitating departures for the US. More than 25,000 Cambodians were thus baptized. Sometimes by loudspeaker they railed against the Buddhist monks whose pagoda was close to their church and whom they considered Satan’s henchmen.”
Yin Soeum, a translator with Indochine Productions, learned English from missionaries in the camps and was promised a journey to the US if he would be baptized. He went to church to pray for peace but refused the baptismal despite his great desire to emigrate because his father said that he would disown him.
His most recent encounter with missionaries was last year when he worked as a translator with the US-based Christian Broadcast Network who were here to make A Thousand Years in the Killing Fields, the most expensive film ever produced in Cambodia. The Khmer-language movie which has since been broadcast twice on local television told the story of Cambodians turning to Christianity after their horrific experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime.
During the filming, the CBN crew tried to convert the local staff, and, at one point during the production, stood in the middle of a wat singing Christian hymns in Khmer. They did not remove their hats or their shoes, according to Yin Soeum. “They didn’t really respect the Cambodian culture and religion. When you are in Rome, you must do like a Roman. It was not appropriate.”
And he feels that it is not appropriate for missionaries to target Cambodia with a film or with promises of immigration or jobs. “There are some good Christians here. There are some bad Christians,” he said. “Initially, I feel happy to work on the film but close to the end I was not really happy.”
The 1998 Directory of International Humanitarian Assistance in Cambodia published by the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia includes 30 Christian NGOs ranging from Mennonite to Catholic with a nearly 2000 employees and a total annual expenditure of over $20 million. Their agendas include improving health care, building roads, digging wells, running orphanages and teaching English. They are here because caring for the poor has always been a Christian value.
World Vision International-Cambodia left the country in 1975 and returned 1979. Their 1997 annual budget was over $4 million and they employ nearly 300 people. The organization is widely acknowledged among the NGO community of doing good work but of frequently crossing the line that divides humanitarian from missionary work.
Although they have discarded their early ‘70s policy of insisting baptism for their employees, the organization has a glass ceiling. Non-Christians who work for them, admits Byworth, can make it to a fairly senior level but will never lead the organization.
“The senior leadership of the organization we normally need to be Christian,” he said. “People when they join World Vision, they know that. We’re not secretive about that.” He says
Russell H Bowers Jr, a US pastor who had previously worked in several Baptist congregations, is World Vision’s only full-time missionary. He was hired six months ago to train church leaders. He came here because, “the gospel is new here. They’ve heard the gospel in Connecticut.” He says his purpose is not to evangelize and create new Christians but to improve the depth of understanding of the Christians that are already there.
He says that many of World Vision’s staff were not Christians when they started their jobs but eventually converted, a phenomenon that he credits to the “genuiness and love” of the Christian staff.
World Vision runs 14 rural area development programs that do everything from building roads to providing health care. Their special projects include work with street children, HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, rehabilitation for the disabled and mine clearance. Last on the list on the summary of their country strategy for 1998-2002 is church relations. That includes liaising with churches already established in the areas that they work in and “witness through the lives of our Christian staff.”
What that means is that their staff explain how they have personally “witnessed” Jesus Christ in their lives, something the some would refer to as proselytizism and others, since it is combined with work that provides jobs and services to a community, unethical.
“Most of the missionaries are very eloquent,” said Chea Savoeun, the Minister of Cults and Religion, “Some of the people believe in Christianity because the Christians gave them gifts of rice and they are very poor.”
Other critics of organizations who combine humanitarian with spiritual work are even more vociferous. “I call it economical evangelism,” said Vira Avalokita, an American Theravadan Buddhist Monk and ordained Methodist minister. “I need a job so I become a Christian.”
World Vision International does not keep any statistics on the number of churches or Christians left behind by their development work because it is not their stated objective. They are aware, however, of churches that came about in Oudong in Kompong Speu and Prasath Ballang in Kompong Thom because of their projects.
“Where we have Christian staff in our projects, we would also hope that their lives and work would be a testimony to their faith and that they would be involved in any local churches,” said Byworth.
Representatives of Christian organizations including World Vision say that the last thing they want—and that God wants—is people who say they believe because they have been employed by a Christian organization, want to emigrate from Cambodia, or require any form of aid, but they do admit that it happens.
“There’s always the possibility of people thinking there’s something in this for them,” said Bowers. “I think the organization World Vision has done a good job of trying to avoid that, not having people jump on the bandwagon so they can inflate numbers or generate rice Christians.”
At a recent prayer session for the Cambodian church held every Thursday at the Overseas Missionary Fellowship Center in Tuol Kork, a half-dozen Christian workers agonized how to strike the balance between humanitarian work and spiritual work. By their belief system, both are equally as valuable, but they don’t want to be seen as pushing their faith or perceived as drawing in people to Christianity for any other reason than a belief in Jesus Christ as the savior.
“But that’s Cambodian culture,” said Chipps in an interview after the prayer session. “It’s the patron-client relationship culture where everybody finds their patron. They will give loyalty to the patron. I know Christians who have been enormously stressed by the constant notion that they are somehow expected to be the patron who provides and they try to find ways of being caring without developing the patron-client relationship. As soon as there’s this patron-client relationship the implication is you look out for me financially, materially, and I’ll believe whatever you believe.”
The influence of Christian NGOs is one of the driving forces behind the Standard Protocol Agreement which is currently on hold at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The agreement would act as a contract between NGOs and the government and specifically bans missionary work, although Carol Strickler, executive director of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, said that it wasn’t so much as a ban as an attempt to separate spiritual from humanitarian work.
Byworth says that World Vision International will always abide by the laws of whichever country it works in. “It would be helpful for the NGOs and it would be helpful for the government to define more clearly what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” he said. “If it’s going to be in there, what that means to different people is very different things. One person’s missionary is another person’s development worker is another person’s proselytizing is another person’s Christian witness.”
The number of Christian missionaries is equally hard to gauge. The dictionary defines a missionary as someone who goes to a foreign country to spread their religion, but many people who fit that definition are hesitant to use it, preferring the phrase Christian worker or church planter or numerous other titles.
The directory for the International Christian Fellowship, a congregation of several hundred expat Christian workers, lists 24 people who identify themselves as missionaries or church planters and several others who should be identified as such. Bowers, for example, is listed as a leadership development coordinator. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons, has 26 missionaries cycling around Phnom Penh.
All foreign missionaries are supposed to be registered with the Ministry of Cults and Religions but the ministry does not know how many missionaries are in the country.
“We are considering the traffic of the religions in Cambodia,” said Chea Savoeun, “We have to manage them in appropriate ways. We cannot allow anarchy of religions to emerge in this country.”
Few Christian workers—foreign and Cambodian—believe that the government can regulate missionary work without conflicting with article 43 of the Cambodian constitution which guarantees freedom of religion on the condition that such freedom does not affect other religious believes or violate public order and security.
Steve Hyde, a Baptist, is a second generation missionary. Like Bowers and many other expat missionaries in Cambodia, he is here to train Cambodians who have already decided to be Christian. According to Hyde, few foreigners are overt evangelizers because Christianity delivered by a foreigner is viewed as alien. “Cambodia is a country that is attacked from the outside,” he said in a recent interview. “So they’re very suspicious of anything from the outside and they’re very protective of keeping things Khmer…. Many times they view Christianity as being French or Vietnamese. Already that’s two strikes against us.” When he lived in the Philippines, he went door-to-door every day, but doesn’t bother in Cambodia because it’s not a tactic that works here. He does, however, say that hundreds of people have become Christian just from being around him.
He calls himself the co-ordinator of Words of Life, a organization that is “helping to equip the body of Christ in Cambodia,” according to his business card. He does his own fundraising mostly through a Baptist church in Iowa.
He teaches Sunday school every week at the Church of Christ—which is also home to the Good Shepherd Mission, an orphanage—and leads their learn-English-and-praise-Jesus service every Wednesday evening. He towers over his mostly adolescent congregation, many of whom are also residents of the orphanage.
The congregants pray for their relatives who do not yet know the love of Jesus Christ because, according to one of Hyde’s December sermons, once everyone in Cambodia believes in the savior, there will be no more poverty, war and instability in the country.
He arrived here five years ago and worked with several Christian humanitarian NGOs including World Relief, but Words of Life is his baby. “I felt like God was leading me to do more to help the churches here,” he said. “Because there were churches that were growing and there was there churches that were being started but they were all so weak.” He claims that Christianity is not a religion because it is “in your heart” and that Christianity is the only thing that will save Cambodia.
“I believe the hope for Cambodia is not going to be found in building more roads and improving the lives of villages,” he said. “Look at the developed nations. Look at all the problems they have.” According to Hyde nothing will get better in Cambodia until everyone turns to Jesus. God has, says Hyde, already punished Cambodia once for turning its back on the Lord. God, after all, chooses the world’s leaders.
“(The Khmer Rouge period of 1975-1978) may have been a time for God to use the people to make it so bad that they will come back to God,” he said. “God hates idolatry. Look at Cambodia. Every single house has idols. From a spiritual perspective, how can god honor that? God doesn’t want people to perish. God wants people to receive him and God wants people to be reunited with him. Sin broke our fellowship with god and God wants us to be reunited with him. Maybe God ordained it.”
Catholics in Cambodia refuse to baptize a child of Buddhist parents until they are 18 but some missionaries seem to target children in particular. The Good Shepherd Mission run by the International Christian Mission based in Virginia does not teach their orphans about Buddhism despite the fact that they realize that their parents were Buddhists.
“That is not appropriate,” said Yin Soeum. “They think it’s not easy to convert the old man but the young it’s easy.”
Jimmy Rim, whose book With Christ in the Killing Fields was published last year by the Far Eastern Bible College Press, states at the end of his explanation of his 20 years worth of missionary work his great ambition. He wants to build the One Thousand Orphan Children Vocational Training School. He says that older Cambodians are too difficult to minister to because their lives are filled with Buddhism. His plan is to build a school with a bible-study based education that will hopefully create the next generation of missionaries because foreign missionaries have not had much impact. The book lists a Phnom Penh address to send donations that belongs to an organization called Concern International—not to be confused with Concern Worldwide. According to Rev Timothy Tow, his publisher, Jimmy Rim is in Hong Kong receiving medical treatment and not available to comment last month.
If the government insists on a separation of humanitarian and religious work, then institutions like these would be in the most trouble. “Our ministry is in the name of Jesus Christ and for God’s glory,” Russell Hall, who runs the International Christian Mission from the US and raises most of their funds, said by e-mail. “I am not sure if those churches and individuals who are presently supporting Good Shepherd Mission would continue to do so if they were told Christianity would not be taught.”
The children are receiving valuable help, but some people wonder at what cost. “They’re getting goods and services but at what price.” says Vira Avalokita, “How much is the children’s religion worth? Two or three computers and four bags of rice? How much is a tradition worth?”
“It is not a good idea for missionaries to come to Cambodia and try to convert people.” said Chum Saray, a 24-year-old Phnom Penh cyclo driver. “Cambodia believes in Buddhism.”
The biggest complaint lodged against missionaries operating in Cambodia is a lack of respect for Buddhism, the faith of more than 95 percent of the population and the state religion. “We have asked the church missionaries to respect the government political platforms, and not to teach their religion in a way that affects the other religions.” said Dauk Sarin, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Cults and Religion. “But some missionaries teach Cambodian young people not to respect Buddhism.”
Steve Hyde thinks that Buddhism is the work of the devil and is bringing Cambodia down. “You see in the center of every village there is a wat. A huge humongous wat, and around it you see all the shacks of all the people who built that huge humongous wat, they spent 10s of thousands of dollars building and years and years of work and labor and they’re living in shacks and they don’t have proper water. I see it as a drain on the people, a huge burden on the people….There are 7000 wats in Cambodia that’s a huge amount of money constantly pouring in. and then you have how many monks, 40,000, they go around. They don’t work. They don’t do anything. They just beg for food.”
Michael King is a Christian worker who has been based in Phnom Penh for five years. He believes that Buddhism is a lie. “At some point you’ve got to think about absolute truths and what is true and what is not,” he says. “I think most Christians would say that Buddhism is not a true religion. Jesus teaches things that are different and so we would say that Buddhism is false.”
Most Buddhists acknowledge that the Buddhism practiced here is weak and is still suffering from the decimation of the Pol Pot regime. “I am worried about the Buddhism in Cambodia because of the recent past,” said Venerable I Pannatissa, a Sri Lanka monk who teaches at the Sihanuk Riak Buddhist University and the Buddhist and Pali University. “During the Pol Pot regime, the monk and the monk community was demolished. After 1988, monks were re-established in Cambodia. Former monks because monks again. The became monks but they did not have proper guidance. Most of the Buddhist because of a lack of Buddhist education, the monks really they don’t know about their responsibility and accountability.”
Cambodia, he says, needs more Buddhism. “Christianity is not the solution to come out of poverty… Cambodian needs more Buddhism and more proper guidance especially the government. Politicians must be guided first. And they can guide the nation.”
Demonizing Buddhism, however, appears to be a specifically Western phenomenon with most Cambodian Christians merely saying that they made a different choice. “I studied the bible and I looked at both,” said Runnath Narin who runs the Good Shepherd Mission along with his brother Runnath Nara. “Christianity is better.”
The brothers first came into contact with Christian missionaries in 1985 after fleeing to Thailand because of the political situation in Cambodia. “My life was not good,” said Runnath Nara. “I met a Christian at the border camps who told me that my life would be better if I believed in Jesus. It is.”
Despite the fact that Christianity is clearly growing in Cambodia and the number of missionaries, Christian organizations and Christian churches is increasing, Christianity in actuality hasn’t been very successful here. “Missionaries have met with failure,” said Dauk Sarin, “They gain very little belief from Cambodians.”
Christianity is the dominant religion in the Philippines and can claim at least 10 percent of the population in several Asian countries including Vietnam. After more than 450 years of Christian missionaries in Cambodia, one half of one percent of the population are Christian.
The first Christian missionary, a Portuguese Dominican named Gaspar Da Cruz, arrived in 1555, learned the language and realized that Cambodians had no interest in changing their religion. He returned home after a year, according to The Cathedral of the Rice Paddy.
In 1850, Bishop Miche in charge of Cambodia and Laos, wrote to his superiors in France: “It is certain to anyone who has lived in Cambodia for a few years…that one can never obtain any success among the Cambodians unless through the purchase of slaves for debts, but that is long and very expensive.”
Missionaries don’t last long here. Steve Hyde said that Cambodia is nicknamed the “revolving door” because so many are in and out. After five years, he is regarded as a veteran.
Chakara Em, is a Cambodian-American missionary and church leader of the Phnom Penh Church of Christ. He wanted to come back to Cambodia and help his country. He decided against setting up an NGO or starting a business deciding that missionary work was more valuable. A Christian for six years after converting in the US, he just smiles when asked why Cambodia, with its deeply rooted Buddhist culture, does not have a significant number of Christians. Cambodia is like Japan, he says, which is nicknamed “the Rocky Mountain Mission” by missionaries because the Christianity has been equally successful there. “Yes,” he says. “Cambodia is hard, but it’s not impossible.”
(additional reporting by Van Roeun and Lor Chandara)