In 1998, when former Marxist dictator Pol Pot died before he could be brought to trial for ordering the deaths of millions of fellow Cambodians, there was a small item in the unsigned editorial section of National Review. If memory serves, it read “The war crimes trial of Pol Pot has now been moved to a higher court.”
According to an excellent Guardian story by Jason Burke, massive regret, the possibility of war crimes trials, and deft missionary efforts are working in concert to drive what is left of the Khmer Rouge to embrace evangelical Christianity.
Burke reports, “[h]undreds of former fighters have been baptized in the past year” in the Khmer Rouge’s former mountain stronghold town Pailin, in southwest Cambodia. The city has “four churches, all with pastors and growing congregations. At least 2,000 of those who followed Pol Pot, the guerrillas’ former leader who died six years ago, now worship Jesus.”
One local pastor estimates that seven out of ten converts were part of Pol Pot’s brutal program of purges and forced labor. Now, a lot of those soldiers are looking for absolution and local pastors and missionaries are looking to give it to them. Said Thao Tanh, 52, “When I was a soldier I did bad things. I don’t know how many we killed. We were following orders and thought it was the right thing to do. I read the Bible and I know it will free me from the weight of the sins I have committed.”
Though Christian conversion and a demonstration of remorse may mean lighter sentences for the officers and planners of the former regime, missionaries “have found most of their converts among the middle and lower ranks of the Khmer Rouge.”
These old soldiers don’t have the easiest lives. They “eke out a living as landless laborers on the estates of their former political chiefs,” live in “flimsy shacks,” and work “15-hour days.” Government or foreign aid is nonexistent and medical care is scarce. And here come missionaries and pastors, offering material as well as spiritual support. Some groups have built wells marked “A gift from Jesus.”
From the way he tailors the story, Burke seems taken in by all of this. He quotes the pro and the con but evangelicals get more than a fair shake in this unexpected account of grace displacing barbarity.