PHNOM PENH-In a rented building on a dusty street in Phnom Penh, Samuel Lamanilao and his wife Merlen personally welcome the church members as they arrive for 8:30 a.m. Sunday worship. Soon the room is filled with over 100 people in closely packed plastic chairs. There are a few families, and a number of youth, but the congregation is mostly women and children.
Many come by tuk-tuk, a rickshaw pulled by a motorbike, or they climb into the back of flatbed trucks, the standard forms of public transportation in the city. Others have walked from nearby blocks of rented single-room dwellings, one per family. Many such homes have a sewing machine on a wooden platform outside, where husband or wife stitches together clothes or gloves for a couple of dollars a day.
The worship includes both contemporary praise choruses and familiar hymns, translated from English into Khmer. Some songs have Christian words set to Cambodian folk melodies, accompanied on traditional stringed instruments. A young girl in special costume performs a flowing dance, scattering flower petals. Pastor Sammy delivers an animated sermon, encouraging the congregation to trust and obey Christ. At the close of the service, about 20 people come forward for prayer. Pastor Sammy moves among them, laying hands on heads and shoulders, praying for individual needs.
A second service is held two hours later in English, reaching a smaller congregation of expatriate Filipinos and Indonesians. In the afternoon, nearly 100 neighborhood children gather for the twice-weekly feeding program, which includes songs, skits, Bible stories, and a memory verse.
Seated on the floor, the children turn to face each other in rows as plates with rice, vegetables, chicken, and fruit are handed to each of them. The meals are eaten with eagerness, and some children return for seconds.
The Lamanilaos live upstairs in an apartment over the meeting room. This gives the congregation easy access to pastoral care, but at the cost of personal privacy. Once during a wedding ceremony, their apartment was broken into and their valuables stolen.
After eight years of pastoral ministry in the Philippines, the Lamanilaos came to Cambodia in 1999 on a mission funded jointly by Pentecostal Holiness churches in the Philippines and the United States. They faced the challenges common to all missionaries: adapting to different foods and customs, learning a foreign language, finding acceptance among the people.
They began by offering English instruction and guitar lessons to young people in the community. Many came to Christ, and those young disciples have grown to become leaders in the Phnom Penh church. Four have attended Bible school and are now serving as pastors of newly planted village churches under the supervision of Pastor Sammy.
The church in the village of Champay is a temporary structure with woven palm leaf walls and a tin roof. When the church dug a well for the congregation, they dug a second well at the village school to serve the community. While a new shopping mall in Phnom Penh suggests that economic prosperity has arrived, for some, village life remains a hand-to-mouth struggle.
The nation has yet to recover from the economic collapse brought about by the decimation of its population and destruction of its infrastructure during the regime of Pol Pot. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered an estimated 200,000 of their countrymen in the "killing fields," with 2 million more killed by deprivation and disease. Survivors included hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans. Land mines buried then continue to take a toll today, exploded by farmers and children who lose limbs and sometimes lives.
On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, a memorial stupa displays the skulls of thousands of victims unearthed from scores of mass graves. Here infants were swung and smashed against tree trunks, while men, women, and children were shot, stabbed, poisoned, bludgeoned, and buried alive. Bones and teeth are visibly scattered along the paths between the burial sites.
For most of the victims, the last stop before transport to the killing fields was Tuol Sleng, a prison and interrogation facility run by the infamous Comrade Duch, now facing trial for his crimes-and also a confessing Christian ("Would you forgive this man?" May 17, 2008). First a school, then a prison, Tuol Sleng has now become a museum where cramped cells and grisly instruments of torture are on display, along with the photos of hundreds of victims meticulously catalogued by Comrade Duch.
Sammy and Merlen arrived in Phnom Penh childless after 14 years of marriage. But in 2002 they sealed their commitment to their new homeland by adopting a Cambodian baby. Born prematurely, gasping for breath with underdeveloped lungs, the infant girl weighed in at under 3 pounds. Already burdened with several small children and an unfaithful husband, her impoverished mother told the midwife to dispose of the baby.
Instead, she took the infant to her own home and telephoned her friends, the Lamanilaos. Strangely, that very morning, Merlen herself had been taken ill with what felt like birth pangs. After the call, the pains immediately ceased, and they went to the midwife's home. They were shocked at what they saw. "The baby looked like a newborn puppy, wrapped in a dirty towel," says Sammy.
After wrestling with the matter in prayer, Sammy and Merlen took the baby to the government hospital. Doctors declared her prospects for survival slim, but Sammy and Merlen were undeterred. They paid two women to work in 12-hour shifts for 30 days, pumping oxygen manually into the baby's makeshift incubator. And they prayed. After a month, the child was released, frail but healthy, with the doctor's declaration: "This baby has been given a second life." Today 6-year-old Kezia Grace is thriving.
This concern for redeeming the hopeless and neglected continues in Pastor Sammy's ministry. According to USAID, Cambodia's adult HIV infection rate of 2.7 percent is the highest in Asia and is "fueled by a large sex industry and poorly developed health and education infrastructures." Several members of Pastor Sammy's congregation are AIDS sufferers, and he and Merlen visit the HIV hospital regularly to pray with the patients.
Pastor Sammy also has a prison ministry: "My work includes teaching English to the chief of police, guards, and prisoners as well. I visit them twice a month and give them books, Christian magazines, and Bibles."
Official 2006 government statistics count some 70,000 Christians among the population of 14 million, about one-half of 1 percent, with a majority of these Roman Catholic. In July of last year, the Ministry of Cults and Religions issued a directive banning Christian evangelistic activities as "disruptive." Christians are prohibited from knocking on doors or distributing religious literature. Any church construction must be pre-authorized by the Ministry.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party was returned to power last July in elections that were disputed as fraudulent by opposition parties. While no supporter of Hun Sen, Pastor Sammy was relieved at the results, fearing that a defeat for the government would have resulted in civil war.
Avoiding direct confrontation with the government or the Buddhist community, Pastor Sammy concentrates on shining the light of Christ through works of love and mercy. "We are here as witness that the love of God is stronger than hatred and death. To the wounded, the suffering, and the broken-hearted, we are here to proclaim the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior."
In 2001 the Cambodian National Assembly created the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to try leaders of the Khmer Rouge for the atrocities committed by the regime. The government requested help from the United Nations in establishing and operating the tribunal but insisted that the trial be held in Cambodia by and for the people of the nation.
Five individuals have been arrested and are in custody, facing trial by the ECCC:
• Khieu Samphan, former head of state;
• Nuon Chea, former deputy to Pol Pot;
• Ieng Sary, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister;
• Khieu Thirith, former minister of education, wife of Ieng Sary, and sister-in-law of Pol Pot;
• Kaing Guek-Eav, known as Comrade Duch, former commandant of Tuol Sleng prison and interrogation facility.
Those arrested are charged with war crimes and/or crimes against humanity. Preliminary proceedings are underway, with the ECCC ruling on pre-trial motions.
The trial of Comrade Duch was expected to begin in September but has been delayed as the court considers an appeal by the prosecution to hold Eav liable for "joint criminal enterprise," in effect adding criminal conspiracy to the charges against him. According to a statement, ECCC expects to transfer the case from pre-trial to trial chambers after the ruling this month, when it will receive lists of prospective witnesses from the prosecution and defense. A meeting expected in mid-January to set a date for the initial hearing will mark the first public stage of the trial process. For crimes committed 30 years ago, the wheels of justice continue to grind, slowly.