CAROLINE GLUCK BattambangAre some acts of evil simply too heinous to be forgiven? Not according to Cambodian-born pastor Christopher LaPel. Three years ago, he baptized a man he believed to be a teacher in the muddy waters of the River Sangke in western Cambodia's Battambang province. After more than 20 years of hiding the truth, that same man recently revealed his true identity: Kang Khek Ieu, better known by his revolutionary name Duch, head of the Khmer Rouge's secret police. The man also confessed responsibility for the deaths of at least 12,000 people. I was shocked when I found out who he really was, because what he did was so evil, says LaPel, whose parents, brother and sister died during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror from 1975 to '79, along with nearly 2 million others. Then I reflected: it's amazing; it's a miracle. Christianity changes people's lives. If Jesus can change Duch, he can change anyone.
Few other Cambodians are likely to share this view or forgive the man who presided over the Khmer Rouge's security network. Many have reacted to news of his conversion to Christianity with skepticism. Duch, who was arrested by Cambodian authorities in May following his confession, is awaiting trial at a military detention center just a few blocks from S-21 (or Tuol Sleng), the top security prison he once commanded. Thousands of men, women and children were interrogated and tortured there before being executed.
Clad in a baseball cap, T shirt and flipflops, LaPel is an unlikely looking pastor. Though he makes his home in Los Angeles, he returned to Cambodia last week to conduct baptisms and training sessions so Cambodians can carry out missionary work in their communities. LaPel first met Duch (pronounced dook) in late 1995. Calling himself Hang Pin, Duch arrived with a colleague to take part in a two-week Christian leadership training course in the village of Chamkar Samrong in Battambang province, a former resettlement area for Cambodian refugees. According to LaPel, Duch initially was quiet and withdrawn. He said he was not a believer but had come at the urging of his friend. After listening to LaPel's sermons and teachings, however, Duch asked to be baptized. He changed totally after receiving Christ--180 degrees, says LaPel with a smile. He turned from hatred to love. He said he had never felt love in his childhood or when he grew up. So when he turned to Christ, love filled his heart.
LaPel says Duch's transformation took on physical dimensions. The gaunt, withdrawn man began to appear more relaxed, teasing his fellow students. He even began dressing better, tucking his shirt tails into his long pants. A group photograph taken in 1995 shows a smartly dressed Duch in a pressed white shirt and dark trousers. He is standing next to Pastor Christopher, whose hand rests protectively on Duch's shoulder.
LaPel remembers Duch well. Then 54, Duch was older than the others but also one of the brightest. After his baptism, he began sitting in the front row of the sessions, taking meticulous notes and asking questions. Duch, the pastor recalls, was full of enthusiasm and said he couldn't wait to return to his village in Svay Chek district to start a church. He later went on to establish a house church with 14 families.
In retrospect, LaPel says there were signs pointing to Duch's real identity. Before he received Christ, LaPel recalls, he said he did a lot of bad things in his life. He said: 'Pastor Christopher, I don't know if my brothers and sisters can forgive the sins I've committed against the people.' He said he felt remorse for what he had done to innocent people, adding: 'Thank God that the Lord forgives me.' LaPel did not probe further. When he leads people to Christ, he says, he doesn't inquire deeply into their past; instead he focuses on their present beliefs. If they are willing to repent and accept Jesus as their Lord and saviour, I will lead them to the Lord, no matter what they've done wrong in the past.
LaPel still wasn't aware of the notorious Khmer Rouge security chief's true identity when they met a year later, during a second Christian leadership course. But if he had looked closely at a photograph that's now displayed in Tuol Sleng prison, he would have known straight away. LaPel has visited the jail several times: a close cousin, a former science professor, was tortured there and later killed; her photograph also hangs on the wall. Still LaPel says he doesn't feel personal hatred for the only member of the Khmer Rouge to have confessed a role in the movement's killing machine. He sees Duch's willingness to admit his guilt, stand trial and testify against others as positive--and proof that his conversion to Christianity is genuine.
As LaPel wades into the murky waters of a small village in Banteay Meanchey province to baptize more than 100 people, he is convinced that Duch's conversion can only help the cause of Christianity in Cambodia, a predominantly Buddhist country where Christians make up less than 0.5% of the population. This is a story of hope for the Cambodian people. They've been going through darkness for years. Accepting Jesus Christ brings light to their lives. It's time for Cambodians to turn from hatred to love. But requesting forgiveness may be too much to ask.