In a sprawling campus near Kirirom, some 50,000 Cambodians in the past year have been offered a free holiday and a stark choice regarding the fate of their souls
PREAH SIHANOUK PROVINCE
Pastor Roy Montero slams the door of his jumbo-sized family van, starts the engine and begins a tour of the spacious, mountain-ringed estate that he calls home.
“There’s our swimming pool,” the easy-going Filipino missionary says, pointing out the window.
“Those are our soccer fields …and here is the dam [we built],” he continues, as we roll past a glistening reservoir.
As we coast along, driving for about 10 minutes on the paved roads that wind around Highlands Bible College, Roy points out other amenities, including a health clinic, basketball courts and self-contained cottages for special guests that wouldn’t look out of place in a Western retirement estate.
A man in military fatigues stands to attention and salutes as we drive past. “We have guards, too,” Roy says.
Highlands, which occupies a tranquil 50-hectare site of landscaped gardens and man-made lakes off National Road 4, is located a few kilometres from a well-known Buddhist shrine to Yeay Mao, a mythical heroine believed to protect travellers.
Drivers stop there to pray, sprinkle their car with water from a nearby stream for protection or simply wind down their windows and ask for blessings as they cruise past.
But at Highlands, a Baptist college with about 100 full-time students studying the Bible and Christian theology, Cambodians are encouraged to believe in the protection of Jesus Christ instead.
According to the US State Department’s 2013 International Religious Freedom Report, an estimated 96 per cent of Cambodia’s 15.2 million people are Buddhist, 3.5 per cent are Muslims and the remaining 0.5 per cent is made up of various Christian denominations, ethnic Vietnamese Cao Dai, Bahai and Jews.
The government estimates that about 0.5–0.6 per cent of Cambodians (76,000-90,000 people) are Christian, but some church groups claim the number is much higher, at around 200,000.
While the Ministry of Cults and Religion says it is unconcerned that Christianity is becoming influential, Highlands has preached to more than 50,000 people this year via its Bible camps.
Choranai, a confident 22-year-old, is a third and final year student at the college, which she entered after sitting the entrance exam on a whim after hearing about it from a friend.
“It was a miracle [that I passed]. I didn’t know anything about the Bible,” she says.
Choranai says she often calls her Buddhist mother to preach the gospel. “I don’t want her to go to Hell. I want her to go to Heaven like me.”
Highlands, which opened in 2006, is a project of the Rawlings Foundation, started in 1995 by John Rawlings, a prominent US Baptist preacher and evangelist.
Herb Rawlings, 82, a son of John (who passed away last year aged 99) recently obtained Cambodian citizenship. A picture of him greeting Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany hangs in one of the cottages.
The foundation bought the sprawling piece of land for $90,000 in 2003. It has since spent some $3.4 million developing the site, and running costs, largely incurred by the massive camps that Highlands runs, exceed $1 million a year.
Churches throughout Cambodia gather people from within their local communities for overnight “sports camps”, which are run every couple of weeks, and more intensive summer camps.
During the camps, participants, mostly kids and teenagers but also a sizeable amount of middle-aged or elderly people, play games, eat plentifully and sleep in clean dorms packed with bunk beds.
Many are poor and relish the opportunity to have an all-expenses paid holiday.
The college has welcomed a total of 120,036 campers since 2006, though many are counted multiple times as returnees.
But for missionaries, the fun and games are secondary.
“Some of them will decide to believe and some will not … we will give them the Good News and it’s up to them,” Roy tells us while sipping “Living Water” (bottled at Prey Nup by a pastor) in the college canteen as buses carrying more than 1,000 campers arrived on Tuesday for a sports camp.
As she took in the site, Preap Torn, a 66-year-old from Kampong Chhnang with rotting teeth, reflected what appeared to be the perspective of many older campers.
“Oh, I have never seen such a good place and such nice views like this before. We are very happy,” she said with a smile. “I’m a Buddhist, but we’re invited so we come. We know it’s a Jesus place.”
After a dinner of beef curry and fried fish, campers are ushered into an open-sided mess hall for an “evangelistic”.
Things start off with some light entertainment. College students act as hosts, putting on a variety show of sorts, which eventually transitions into group singing to a live band.
“Jesus Christ has set us free by his love, we are happy,” the hall sings along in Khmer to one song.
The next gets them on their feet. “Jump, jump, jump in the light,” the kids scream, bounding up and down on their plastic chairs as they follow the moves of those on stage. “Dancing in the light of God!”
With the crowd’s spirits soaring, the lights darken and the atmosphere grows tense. Black-clad figures with white painted faces, representing sin, appear under red lights. They attack a man dressed in white, offering him alcohol and money.
After minutes of this, a silver-suited figure appears. A tug-of-war ensues, and eventually, the acceptance of Christ prevails, the sins are banished and the man has been saved.
It’s at this point that the sermon begins. Sim Mien, a slick 34-year-old Cambodian pastor takes to the stage. Dressed in a suit, his over-the-top but charismatic style echoes that of US televangelists. Everyone dies, he tells the crowd, focusing his attention especially on teens and children.
A picture of a dolled-up Korean pop group appears on the projector screens mounted at each side of the stage to reinforce his point. “They are beautiful!” Mien proclaims, before switching abruptly to a photo of skulls. “Who is the cute one now?”
A group of young girls get up and try to leave but are ushered back to their seats.
As he continues, Mien grows increasingly animated. He dramatises a suicide, impersonates the grieving father of a student who died in a car crash in 2012, and references last month’s street killing of tycoon Ung Meng Cheu in Phnom Penh.
A crude animation is shown depicting a face in the flames of hell.
“He’s a rich guy, but now he needs just a drop of water in his mouth,” the pastor says mockingly, apparently referring to Meng Cheu.
He screams, pretending to burn as more pictures appear. “Do you want to go into this fire? Oh, it’s very hot there!”
Mien then explains that Hell can be avoided. Believing in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins, he tells the crowd, can save you.
“Come with me, I’ll show you the way to paradise, because I have the word of God,” he says, pointing at a picture showing a stairway to heaven.
The sermon reaches a crescendo with a video of the dead being judged. The crowd is then asked to bow their heads, pray and “think deeply” about what they want.
The pastor asks those who believe to come towards the stage. About half the crowd gets up. They are ushered into the canteen and are urged to fill out “decision” cards professing their faith while being coached in small groups.
Sou Nhen, a 45-year-old housewife from Oudong, says she is pledging “because God can make me good and let me go to heaven”.
“I’m scared of the lake of fire,” she says.
Sinop, a 21-year-old Highlands student writes the names of some girls aged 8 and 10 onto decision cards. “I explained to them that to believe in God can bring them to paradise. And they decided to receive God,” she says.
Approximately 240 campers professed their faith after that night’s sermon, Paul Tabanao, Highlands’ camp director, tell us the next day.
He admits, however, that only 25 per cent will actually attend church when they return home.
Paul rejects the idea that the sermon could be considered overwhelming.
“As missionaries, we did a bit of study about the culture when we came here. And we understood that Cambodians also have a doctrine of Heaven and Hell as Buddhists … it’s not something new for them,” he said.
To describe the camp’s tactics as manipulation would be wrong, Paul says, because such a term implies personal gain. The point is instead “to make sure that more people will enter God’s Kingdom”.
“Maybe, yeah, you can call it indoctrination, but we are democratic, we are free to believe what we want to believe … we are not forcing them,” he said. “We make it nice here so people would come here, but I don’t think it’s manipulation … it’s like fishing, you know, you use bait, you use the bait to fish.”
Khun Dara, director of the religious affairs department of the Ministry of Cults and Religion, said he was aware of Highlands but brushed off the idea that too many Cambodians were being exposed to Christianity. “This religion came to Cambodia more than 100 years ago, but it still remains at less than one per cent,” he said.
Still, as an official in a country that espouses one state religion, he couldn’t help taking a shot at missionary work.
“The poor only believe when they are getting donations from the Jesus community. But, when there are no donations, they return to Buddhism.”