Cambodia’s “killing fields” have been relatively quiet since Vietnamese troops drove out the ruthless Khmer Rouge in 1978. But with the final pullout of those troops in late September and the collapse of Paris peace talks about Cambodia’s future, the nation seems poised on the brink of internal war.

In what appears to be the unlikeliest of times, however, Christians in Cambodia have taken a few steps forward. In late July, Radha Manickam, pastor of the Cambodian Christian Fellowship in Seattle, visited Cambodia and pressed for recognition and better treatment of Cambodia’s small Christian population.

“I represent Cambodian Christians in the U.S.,” he said when requesting his visa. “We would like to know what we can do to help the Cambodian people and nation.” Because of this request, he was received as an official visitor by the foreign ministry throughout his visit. He toured farms, orphanages, and other projects. Everywhere he went he introduced himself as a Cambodian Christian from the U.S.

Securing an interview with a representative from the Ministry of Religion, Manickam requested recognition for Christians in Cambodia. When told Cambodia recognizes Islam and Buddhism, Asian religions not associated with Western imperialism, an undaunted Manickam pressed on. “That’s not enough. We are not Muslims or Buddhists. We are Cambodian Christians.”

After several more questions, the representative gave in. “All right, the Christians should have some freedom of religion. Have them form themselves into a group with a charter, and we will recognize them.”

In explaining why he was so fearless when he could have had his passport confiscated, Manickam said he already had survived four years in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. He was not afraid to trust God for the future.

Evangelism Explosion

Within Cambodia it is estimated that there are more than 200 evangelical Christians. Manickam met with one group of 60. Some of these are now seeking to form a charter, in accord with the Ministry of Religion’s invitation.

In the refugee camps on Cambodia’s border, several thousand more Christians meet in study groups and worship services. About 50 Cambodian Christian fellowships and churches flourish in North America. France and Australia also nurture a number of Cambodian churches.

Although Protestant Christian witness in Cambodia began in 1923, and the New Testament was translated in 1925, government restrictions limited witness and kept the number of Christians small. It was during the Vietnam War that evangelism exploded. In 1972 Stanley Mooneyham, formerly of World Vision, conducted an evangelistic campaign in Phnom Penh. In three days 2,000 Cambodians responded to the gospel. In following campaigns, thousands more were converted. Many new churches began. Turning to Christ continued in the refugee camps.

Last March a broad spectrum of denominations and parachurch agencies met in Ontario, California, to form the Provisional Cambodian Christian Committee. This group will cooperate in a revised Bible translation, radio broadcasts, and solving problems in the Cambodian Christian community.

Preparing For War

In January a group of concerned agencies, including World Vision, the Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC), and the Christian and Missionary Alliance, will meet in Singapore to consider forming a new cooperative humanitarian agency through which Christians may work in Cambodia.

The timing may be crucial. Experts warn of increased violence in Cambodia in the wake of Vietnam’s withdrawal of troops. Khmer Rouge resistance forces have been camped along the Thai border and reportedly have pushed a little farther into Cambodia. It is no secret that they intend to challenge Cambodia’s small army and overthrow the current government.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, overthrew the U.S.-backed Cambodian government of Lon Nol and began their brutal campaign to install communism. More than one million Cambodians were killed during Pol Pot’s three-year reign of terror.

By Miriam Adeney.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.