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A woman carries her baby in front of an abandoned church in Phnom Penh

Christ in Cambodia

Religion | Once immersed in Western Christianity, a Southeast Asian pastor plants churches the old-fashioned way

Issue: "He's in," Sept. 22, 2007

SVAY RIENG, Cambodia- As 40 Christian house-church leaders discuss their work, smoke from an outdoor cooking fire wafts through the windows of the home near the Vietnam border in which they are meeting, and a wayward chicken rushes through the living room. Their host is Pastor X. Raksmey, who has planted 35 Cambodian churches since 2003.

The U.S. State Department estimates that only 2 percent of Cambodia's 14 million people are Christians. While the country has shown more tolerance for religious freedom than its communist neighbors in Laos and Vietnam, most citizens in the Buddhist-dominant society are wary of the faith they consider a Western implant. But Raksmey is homegrown.

When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, it jailed Raksmey, a soldier during the early-1970s rule of Lon Nol. He slept in chains and by day worked in the fields, sustained by little more than occasional small portions of porridge. Under the Khmer Rouge 1.7 million Cambodians died: Some were killed outright and others perished from starvation, disease, or overwork.

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Raksmey says he was spared execution because the dictatorship sought to purge the educated and wealthy from the country, and "people receiving persecution were higher class" than he was.

When the Khmer Rouge regime ended, Raksmey moved to the capital, Phnom Penh, and found a pharmacy job with the Ministry of Health. His wife joined him in 1981, and their family grew to six.

Raksmey was a Buddhist but his aunt was a Christian who gave him a Bible, and in 1990 he "tried to find a way to live in Jesus Christ. Everything in the Bible seemed to be proven." Two years later he decided to become a minister. Soon his father, a Buddhist leader, also professed faith in Christ in 1993 and began to evangelize-only to be shot dead as he answered his door one night late in 1993.

Raksmey ministered in Phnom Penh until late 1999, then led a Cambodian church in Las Vegas. He returned to his home province in 2003 and, helped by the memory of his father, began making disciples. He says his methods are simple: "Just convincing by God, according to His Word. . . . We go with them (to their villages) and to help them start their churches." He says he has stayed to nurture churches for as short as a month, and as long as seven months.

Not all villages welcome a new house church in their area, but in a few places Raksmey and his friends have been able to reach even leaders with the gospel. In one Svay Rieng community, called Boeung Ray, the village chief became a church leader, as did three teachers in the local junior and senior high school.

Evangelism in Cambodia may have just gotten a little more difficult, though. The government issued a decree in late June that prevents Christians from discussing their religion in public: Sun Kim Hun, deputy minister of cult and religion, said, "They can do any activity inside their institutions, but are not allowed to go door-to-door." Last year some believers had distributed candy to youth as they proselytized, which is illegal.

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