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
"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
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,"
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.