Arun Sok Nhep, 56, is among Cambodia’s most prominent evangelical Christians. After fleeing the Khmer Rouge to Vietnam, he was imprisoned and deported to Laos, where he spent more time in prison before escaping to France in 1977. He went on to become an ordained minister and the first Cambodian to translate the Bible into Khmer. Today, he is the chief executive of the Bible Society of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, as well as a consultant for the United Bible Society. He talked to Bennett Murray about theology, missionaries and the state of Khmer Christianity.
How did you become a Christian?
It was 1974. I was in the [government] army at that time when I was 17, and my friend was killed on the frontline. So life for me was very futile, nothing could stand forever. And it made me think of spirituality, and then I came across the Bible and started to read. I realised that all the fighting, war, hatred, violence, all this resulted from sin. I was from a Buddhist background, so the concept of sin or a personal god was quite new to me.
My siblings had already become Christian. And one of my friends was Christian. But I didn’t want to follow it at first. For me, Christianity was a French and American religion, and I had nothing to do with this. But when my friend died, I became more sensitive to Christianity, and I discovered that it was not just for Westerners.
How is Western Christianity different from Cambodian Christianity?
In the West, Christianity is part of the culture and thinking, and there’s a lot of tradition. You’re raised around it. It’s something that is there. For Asians, Christianity is more or less people encountering God themselves. It’s something they discover, and they want just to share with other people.
What were the challenges of translating the Bible into Khmer?
We had the old Khmer Bible, which was translated by an American missionary in the early 1920s. Some people still like that Bible, but the syntax and grammar is not purely Khmer. For example, the Bible often uses the passive form, but in Khmer, we don’t have passive form. And this missionary used a lot of passive, and sometimes it twists the meaning. For example, “your sin is forgiven” in the old translation read as “your sin has forgiven you.”
How did you translate Christian concepts into Khmer?
That is a challenge, because the Khmer language is strongly influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism. We use the same words (as Hinduism and Buddhism), but we have to give new meanings. The word we use to translate for sin, for instance, we borrow from Buddhism. This Buddhist term, it’s more or less related to your actions. If you kill an animal, it is a sin for Buddhists, it gives you bad karma. But in the Bible, sin is more related to your relationship with God.
God has an objective, has a purpose, but when you miss that purpose that is the sin. But it is not necessarily a bad action, it can be mental.
Do Cambodian converts hold on to Buddhist ideas?
Although they become Christians, they cannot change their worldviews right away. I see that they believe in God, but sometimes they have the same picture and notion of heaven as Buddhists. They would say that in heaven, there are a lot of divinities and angels. But the most important thing for Christian heaven is not who is there. If God is there, that’s enough.
What is your opinion on Western missionaries?
You might be surprised that among missionaries, Westerners are in the minority. I think the majority of missionaries are Asian, from countries like Korea and India. Asians can communicate more clearly about the gospel and show that Christianity is not just Western. Some groups try to bring the Western culture of the church to Cambodia, and this is something that is very difficult for Cambodians to accept.
We have a lot of missionaries here, but they are not necessarily here to preach the gospel. We are not here to convert people, just to do something that we’re supposed to do, to live our faith and help people physically, mentally and spiritually.
There are some people, they would come and do things that can create some trouble in the society. In the past, some would say: “We come here because these people are bad people and we want to make them good people.” But this is the minority. And although there's a presence of foreign missionaries in Cambodia, the church growth phenomenon here is mainly due to local initiative. The large majority of Cambodians have become Christians through testimonies of other Cambodians. Indeed, they have few contacts with foreigners.
What is the state of relations between the Christian and Buddhist communities?
Usually, the Buddhists are peaceful people. In principle, relationships are good. There’s mutual respect. In some Hindu or Muslim countries, when you become Christian you get into trouble. But here, there’s a lot of freedom, and people respect your decision. The majority respect that you are Christian, unless you go and start a fight with somebody, but no one does that.