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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Mass murderer's missionary full of hope

Mass murderer's missionary full of hope

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bapt5.jpg

Pastor Christopher LaPel preaching and baptizing among his flock at Boeng Tras village in Banteay Meanchey province.

TTE PASTOR who baptized Kang Khek Ieu - better known under his revolutionary name,

Duch, - the former head of Tuol Sleng prison and torture centre, has been back in

Cambodia, baptizing around a thousand new converts to Christianity and training missionaries.

The Cambodian born pastor, Christopher LaPel, had also hoped to see the man he first

met in 1995, whom he then knew as a teacher, Hang Pin.

Although he did not receive permission to visit Duch, who is being held at a military

detention centre, just a few blocks away from the notorious prison he once commanded,

he was able to deliver a copy of the New Testament, written in Khmer.

"My message to Duch - Hang Pin is 'Be strong in the Lord.' I am sure his faith

is still firm," said LaPel.

A handwritten letter signed by Kaing Guek-Eau, Duch's own English transliteration

of Kang Khek Ieu, suggests that the notorious Khmer Rouge member is still a firm

believer. In the letter, he expresses his thanks to God that his pastor was in Cambodia

and prays that the Lord would allow him to meet with LaPel.

Despite Duch's involvement in the torture and murder of at least 12,000 people, including

members of LaPel's family, LaPel believes that he can find forgiveness from God.

"I was shocked when I found out who he really was, because what he did was so

evil," says LaPel, whose parents, brother and sister died during the Khmer Rouge

regime.

"Then I reflected and thought: 'It's amazing, it's a miracle'," he said.

"Christianity changes people's lives. If Jesus can change Duch, he can change

anyone."

Few other Cambodians are likely to share this view or forgive the man who presided

over the Khmer Rouge's security network. Many have reacted to news of his conversion

to Christianity with skepticism.

Clad in a baseball cap, T-shirt and flip-flops, LaPel is an unlikely looking pastor.

Though he makes his home in Los Angeles, he returned to Cambodia last week to conduct

baptisms and train Cambodians to work as missionaries.

LaPel first met Duch in late 1995. Calling himself Hang Pin, Duch arrived with a

colleague to take part in a two-week Christian leadership training course in the

village of Chamkar Samrong, a former resettlement area for Cambodian refugees. LaPel

had regularly visited the area to train Christian leaders he had worked with at the

Site B refugee camp, in Thailand's Surin province in the 1980s.

According to LaPel, Duch initially was quiet and withdrawn. He said he was not a

believer but had come at the urging of his friend. After listening to LaPel's sermons

and teachings, however, Duch asked to be baptized.

"He changed totally after receiving Christ - 180 degrees," says LaPel with

a smile. "He turned from hatred to love. He said he had never felt love in his

childhood, or when he grew up. So when he turned to Christ, love filled his heart."

LaPel remembers his first meeting with Duch well. Then 54, Duch was older than the

others but one of the brightest. After his baptism, he began sitting in the front

row of the sessions, taking meticulous notes and asking questions. Duch, Pastor LaPel

says, was full of enthusiasm.

He said Duch went on to establish a Church after being on a two-week Christian leadership

training course at his village - Ruluoh in Svay Chek district. Duch attended a second

Christian leadership course the following year.

LaPel last heard from him by letter in 1998. Duch said he was working for the American

Refugee Committee and asked LaPel to pray for him and his ministry.

"Duch is so brave to say 'I did wrong, I accept punishment'," LaPel said.

"His conscience has told him this. The Christian spirit has filled him to his

heart. Now, he is free from fear. He is free - not like Khieu Samphan or Nuon Chea,

or other top leaders.

"Before he received Christ," LaPel recalls, and before he admitted his

true identity, "he said he did a lot of bad things in his life. He said: 'Pastor

Christopher, I don't know if my brothers and sisters can forgive the sins I've committed

against the people.' He said he felt remorse for what he had done to innocent people,

adding: 'Thank God that the Lord forgives me'."

LaPel did not probe further. When he leads people to Christ, he says, he doesn't

inquire deeply into their past; instead he focuses on their present beliefs.

"If they are willing to repent and accept Jesus as their Lord and saviour, I

will lead them to the Lord, no matter what they've done wrong in the past."

LaPel still wasn't aware of the notorious Khmer Rouge security chief's true identity

when they met a year later, during a second Christian leadership course. But if he

had looked closely at a photograph now displayed in Tuol Sleng prison, he would have

known straight away.

LaPel has visited the jail several times: a close cousin, Chou Van Thon, a former

science professor, was tortured there and later killed; her photograph also hangs

on the wall.

"It's so unbelievable and I do feel bad," says LaPel. "It was evil

- but those acts don't square with the man I knew."

Still LaPel says he doesn't feel personal hatred for the only member of the Khmer

Rouge to have confessed a role in the movement's killing machine. He sees Duch's

willingness to admit his guilt, stand trial and testify against others as positive

- and proof that his conversion to Christianity is genuine. Although he says he forgives

Duch - as God had forgiven him, LaPel does think a trial would be beneficial.

"Cambodia needs to have a trial. It would be good; helpful for people to see

how they did wrong; to learn from their mistakes; especially the next generation

so they can learn between right and wrong. You have to stand up for yourself and

take responsibility for your own actions, not just say you were ordered by others,"

he said.

Meanwhile it is back to the business at hand. As LaPel wades waist-deep into the

murky waters at Boeng Tras village in Banteay Meanchey province to baptize more than

100 people, he is convinced that Duch's conversion can only help the cause of Christianity

in Cambodia, a predominantly Buddhist country where Christians make up less than

0.5% of the population.

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