The Foursquare church is one of the biggest care providers for Cambodian children, but resists the ‘residential care’ label and the regulations that come with it
El Sim’s ministry is located on a large tract of marshy land at the beginning of the Tonle Sap in Kampong Chhnang, referred to locally as Tumnup Island and accessible only by boat.
There is a baptism pool by the entrance, and the yard behind it is filled with children. They swing lazily on hammocks, and the older girls rotate picking lice out from behind their friends’ ears.
Ridding an island of devils and demons
FCOP claims that 90 per cent of the island’s population have joined the Foursquare church since El Sim’s conversion 15 years ago. The church still sends youth missions to the area, to address what it described in one article as the “pockets of demonic oppression” that remain.
Estimates made by local residents as to the size of the Christian population vary hugely, from between 10 per cent and 70 per cent.
Among the converts, sickness – often undiagnosed and seemingly untreatable – was cited as the primary motivation.
“We became Christians because we were so sick, and there was a really bad situation in the family,” said 47-year-old Yem Neang, who was baptised in the river at a time before El Sim’s ministry had a pool. “Christianity is better than Buddhism because there are lots of bad devils and spirits in Buddhism,” she said.
Another family interviewed said that attending church and listening to the Bible on a portable radio had helped tame their previously tempestuous daughter, who had since become a mother.
“I was so happy when I became a normal person,” said the daughter, 20-year-old Men Mailin (pictured above). “I believed in God because God could help me.”
A tally of the most recent visit of Foursquare’s youth ministry in September was recorded online as 68 baptised, 17 delivered of evil spirits, and a dozen physically healed.
One building is a church. The other rooms, they say, are where they sleep. Some are bare, with folded mats pushed up against the walls. In others there are beds, but the mattresses are mangy – torn cloth with foam half exposed – and stained. One room smells strongly of urine.
To an outside observer, it would appear to be an orphanage.
But according to FCOP, the Pentecostal Christian ministry that funds this facility and are part of the US-founded Foursquare church, it is not – despite the fact that 60-odd children currently live on the premises.
Nor are the 100-odd similar properties that they operate around the country.
“We do not run orphanages,” FCOP’s website explains. “We run churches, always have, always will! And healthy churches care for the homeless.”
An administrative anomaly
The pressing need for reforms and regulation in Cambodia’s care system is a well-profiled issue. According to Oum Sophannara, director of child welfare at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSAVY), the government wants to reduce the number of children in orphanages by 30 per cent by 2018 – a huge task given they only employ 14 social workers, and have no idea how many centres are actually operating. A countrywide mapping project to locate them is currently under way.
But while many unmapped residential care facilities are small, one-site institutions, FCOP is a behemoth.
According to the MOSAVY, it is the country’s third-largest provider of residential care for children in Cambodia, after pagodas and state-run facilities.
Ted Olbrich, who founded the Foursquare mission in Cambodia with his Laotian wife Sue, said that he believed they surpassed even that. “I think we are bigger that [sic] them but ‘Whatever!’” he said via email, although he emphasised that he was speaking in an unofficial capacity.
But despite this, FCOP facilities are not regulated as care providers. Rather than being under the control of MOSAVY – the body tasked with regulating and inspecting residential facilities in Cambodia – FCOP are only registered in their capacity as churches under the Ministry of Cults and Religion.
Their proselytising mission is clear, on Tumnup Island in particular. On their website, El Sim’s story features prominently: a previously illiterate peasant, she converted to Christianity 15 years ago, after her infant daughter was “raised from the dead” after two days.
Through her faith, FCOP says, Tumnup has become a place where the blind see again, the deaf hear, and where terminal illness is cured by prayer. She is credited by FCOP with having “practically destroyed Satan’s realm” in the local community, and made believers of more than 90 per cent of the population.
In a 2010 interview organised by the Berkley Centre at Georgetown University, Olbrich, described the children who came to live at FCOP churches as “like fish falling into a pond”.
“We will never force a child to become a Christian, but we’ve never had one not choose to be one.”
But as Ministry of Cults and Religion spokesperson Seng Somony clarified yesterday, child welfare inspections were not his ministry’s concern. “Our responsibility is with religion,” he said. “Taking care of or adopting children is related to other institutions.”
For MOSAVY, the ministry tasked with this brief, relations with FCOP have been an ongoing concern.
According to Oum Sophannara, FCOP signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with MOSAVY three years ago, in which it agreed to transform its residential homes into “community care” centres – churches where children could spend time, but would not sleep.
He said he knew they have not complied.
“In practice, they’re still orphanage centres,” he said on Thursday. “You cannot sign an agreement [that] it’s community-based care, but implement it as residential care. For me, it’s illegal.”
Olbrich countered that all but two of FCOP’s facilities had been converted to community care, but did not clarify how this tallied with the continued presence of children living on site.
Sophannara said that he had just attended a meeting that same day between the government and UNICEF that had addressed the question of how to enforce standards in the country’s residential care facilities.
He said that the operations of FCOP had been discussed during the meeting, as his ministry had recently received reports from two of its regional offices raising concerns about their operations.
“[We] heard that they do not take care of children properly, the children [are] abused in the orphanage centre, [and that] they take care of children not complying with the Minimum Standards,” he said, referring to a 2008 government sub-decree that sets out a list of requirements for residential care providers.
Sophannara clarified that there had only been one reported case of abuse at a FCOP facility, which occurred in Kratie province this September when three girls were allegedly sexually assaulted by the church director’s husband while she was away on training.
The case was turned over to the police and the husband went on the run, with the centre reopening last month under the same management.
An unwillingness to engage
Despite the prominent role it plays in caring for the country’s children, FCOP has had a fraught relationship with organisations working in child protection in the Kingdom over the years.
In his 2010 interview with the Berkley Centre, Olbrich commented that “UNICEF would like to put us out of business,” elaborating when questioned that “they’re humanistic, anti-Christ, basically […] They’ve got this idea that it is valuing nature to value Buddhism.”
When Friends International launched its Don’t Create More Orphans campaign last year, highlighting the fact that 80 per cent of institutionalised children in the world had at least one living parent and encouraged people to donate money to family-based solutions instead, FCOP published an article online branding the campaign a “devilish lie”.
The article argued that the culture of Cambodia made fostering and community-based care impossible: “In a Karma based Buddhist culture, orphaned, abused, deformed, or abandoned children are seen as possessing ‘bad karma,’ or are ‘cursed’,” the post read.
James Sutherland, spokesperson for Friends International, told Post Weekend via email that FCOP’s stance appeared to represent a “profound misunderstanding” of the issues at stake, and perhaps an “unwillingness from [FCOP] to engage” with current reform efforts in the sector.
And MOSAVY are not alone in finding FCOP facilities hard to access.
Mia Jordanwood, a consultant who compiled the influential 2011 report With the Best Intentions: A study of attitudes towards residential care in Cambodia said that FCOP was the only institution contacted that refused to cooperate with research for the UNICEF-backed report.
“Foursquare has the reputation of being insular,” she wrote via email last week, citing Olbrich as the contact point for her inquiries.
“They are strongly evangelist, and this seems to be a substantial driver in their residential care institutions. I have spoken with people who work in their residential care institutions, and they complained about a lack of funding for basic provisions, even insufficient food.”
She wrote that she believed FCOP was not alone in “failing to provide adequate care in residential facilities”, but said that the organisation was of “particular concern” because of the scale of its operations.
When contacted by email this week, Olbrich said that Post Weekend had visited their “worst facility”.
He said that he while he was director of FCOP International, a charitable organisation registered in Colorado, the organisation existed solely to facilitate donations coming to Cambodia from the US.
He said he was now retired, and acted merely as an adviser to FCOP Cambodia, a locally run NGO. He did not provide a name or contact details for management at FCOP Cambodia, whose Facebook page directs users to FCOP International’s website.
Standards at FCOP facilities do vary. A second residential facility on Tumnup Island – a half-hour tuk-tuk ride away – is a sparse but pleasant building, home to 15 children who sleep in tidy rooms with hand-coloured bible illustrations taped to the walls.
But while El Sim’s church may be FCOP’s “worst facility”, it is still an institution operated by FCOP with little outside oversight.
Although she only has authorisation from FCOP to care for 31 of the minors living at the centre, El Sim currently houses around double that number. She provides for them partly through FCOP funding, but also by finding additional sponsors or out of her own pocket.
One concern at El Sim’s home was the seeming lack of staff equipped to care for these 60 children.
When visited on Monday, El Sim was away on a training course in Pailin, and the man who came forward as being temporarily in charge was 20-year-old Hong Minh, an orphan who had been taken in by El Sim two years ago and who said he lived at the home in exchange for helping out around the farm.
El Sim’s husband – a staff member – was on the island, but away at the farm. Two other adults were present, a married couple who had also been taken in by El Sim because of difficult circumstances.
Olbrich contested Post Weekend’s observation that there were three adults on the premises, stating that he believed there were seven women and three men employed by FCOP on site during the visit.
He also stated that Hong Minh was an employee of MOSAVY and drew a salary for his work. When contacted yesterday to confirm Olbrich’s claim, Hong Minh said he was not aware of being employed by MOSAVY and that he received no salary.
On the question of poor living conditions at the centre, Olbrich emphasised that FCOP was “the only functional children’s service on that island”.
“Nutritionally [the children’s] diet is superior, due to the fortified rice meals they consume. They also receive regular medical and dental check-ups,” he wrote.
He stated that the room with worn mattresses was not currently in use, although it was shown to Post Weekend as one of the boys’ rooms, and had children’s possessions scattered at the end of the bed.
A difficult balance
Like everyone Post Weekend spoke to at the facility, 20-year-old Hong Minh spoke of El Sim in glowing terms. He explained that he had been sick with headaches and a swollen body before she took him in, but had got better since becoming a Christian.
“It seems like I have a new life after blessing [by El Sim],” he said, adding that, as well as praying, El Sim had helped him with money to pay for medicine from Phnom Penh. Speaking on the phone, El Sim emphasised her sacrifice.
“I adopt them like my real children, I have been so tired for many years without thinking of myself,” she said. Like Olbrich, she said that there was nobody else in the community willing to care for many of the children in her facility, or any government support networks to protect them.
Kampong Laeng’s district governor, Moan Siengly, agreed, and said that local officials would often send destitute children to stay in her care. Olbrich said that MOSAVY also complied at the provincial level with FCOP.
Post Weekend could not contact the provincial representative for comment.
Oum Sophannara strongly denied that there was compliance at any level, and said that the ministry would “never” take a child to an FCOP facility.
“Foursquare has a lot of problems,” he said. “In my purview, I want to shut down all the Foursquare centres that don’t comply with the Minimum Standards.”
He said that while he was aware of the scale of the question at hand, he thought that the time was right to address them.
“I want to talk with the director of Foursquare, in particular with Mr Olbrich,” he said. “Now I think that we can take action.”