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.