A new Christian church in Siem Reap, which meets on Sundays in a ladyboy cabaret hall, has come under attack from social media users just weeks after first opening its doors.
Social media users have accused The Freedom Church of proselytising in Siem Reap and preying on the poor, and some social media adherents were particularly incensed by the inflammatory blog postings of 19 year-old Freedom Church staff member, Luke Hancorn.
In January he wrote that Cambodia “… is a spiritually dead place but there is an increasing anticipation amongst the team and a sense that this city [Siem Reap] is ours.
Despite all the false worship, rampant sex trafficking and the go-to party destination in Southeast Asia, we know that Jesus has given us this city.”
This prompted a fiery response on Facebook from Beck Scougall who wrote, “That was a disgusting attack on the beautiful SPIRITUAL culture of Cambodia. Never in a million years did I think I would ever hear Cambodia being described as a spiritually dead place. I sincerely feel bad for any Khmer person reading that rubbish and hope they know that that is not the opinion of the majority of Westerners who choose to live in this AMAZING country.”
This in turn prompted a slew of social media attacks. Typical was Dave Taylor’s Facebook comment. He said, “The last thing this beautiful country and people need is a Crusader invasion. I wonder when the Inquisitions might start. I'm sure Jesus and all the other Prophets must despair when they see what is done by some humans in their name.”
Nick Kellingley posted, “This church is a cult, cults like places full of uneducated desperate people – ask David Koresh.”
In an interview with The Insider, church director Jan Blondeel said critics are ill-informed and quick to judge. But he added that Hancorn’s choice of words was admittedly poor and he did not mean to denigrate Cambodian culture.
“I’m sure it was a poor choice of words. It’s very easy to judge someone over two or three words without their explanation. But these things happen, that’s why we’re people, we’re imperfect.”
Blondeel said people should visit his church before they criticise it.
“The people who’ve commented haven’t been here. Everyone can come in. We say that you come in free and you go out free. In the long haul, the city and the nation will see if what we’re doing is ok or not ok. Things are proven by their deeds, not words.”
Blondeel denied any attempt at proselytising and said people who joined the church approached by their own free will. He said, “God gave us free will. Everyone can decide for themselves. If I decide to push you, you will close the door and it’s over tomorrow. That doesn’t help, it’s stupid.
“It’s not our goal to replace Buddhism, because people have to decide by themselves. It’s not about creating something instead of Buddhism, that’s not our thing. Because you can’t compare it. It’s like you can’t compare it to Islam.”
The Freedom Church, originally started by Gary Snowzell in Hereford UK in 2009, is aimed at attracting young believers.
The church aims to instill an understanding of “biblical success principles” through highly active sermons featuring live bands, sound and light shows and a focus on cinematography.
The group claims to have bases in Belgium, Uganda, Fiji, Ireland, Singapore, Ukraine and the UK.
In Hereford the group came under scrutiny by the local press for its unorthodox attempts at luring young worshipers by handing out sweets outside a school.
The Hereford Times previously reported Snowzell had been filmed asking young congregation members to get married so they could “start storming nations.”
The group also has alleged loose ties with the anti-homosexual New Spring Church, South Carolina, where Snowzell has preached.
But Blondeel says the church doors are open to anyone and they do not discriminate.
“We invite everyone. Whatever he is, he could have killed his father, he can have another gender, he can want to change his gender, he can be married with seven wives, it doesn’t matter, we love them all, they’re all welcome. That’s why Jesus came. In the Bible God says I am sending my son because I love mankind. If we don’t love them then we don’t love mankind,” Blondeel said.
“Here there’s an incredible spiritual openness. People believe in the spiritual world because that’s part of Buddhism and also Hinduism. That’s part of the culture,” Blondeel said.
“If you talk about God, in the western world they say ‘who’s God? What does he have to do with my life.’ But here it’s daily stuff. If you talk about Jesus and God and the church they listen. They say that’s great. If you do it in western countries they think you’re from another planet.”
Blondeel, who also founded the Belgium division of the church, decided to open a branch in Cambodia after spending five years doing volunteer and missionary work here.
“We went into villages, we did training about personal hygiene, we bought in mosquito nets, we bought a lot of toothpaste and brushes and explained how to use them.
Practical things. We bought eight tonnes of rice so every family in the village could have half a sack of rice,” Blondeel said.
“We started with these basic things and then we explained who we are. We said that’s part of our life. We said we’d really like to help, to teach them about things like personal hygiene. But we also want to talk about something which has changed our life, and maybe it can change your life.”
Blondeel says he and his team of eight Europeans and 15 locals aim to work mainly with local Cambodians to help them reach success in life.
“What happened during the Pol Pot regime - the nation got killed of all its intelligence. That means you are living in a generation that has been robbed of its intelligence. You see it in how people are educated now, the principles they use, how they live,” Blondeel told The Insider.
“You have to build this up again. “That’s one of the things we want to do. We’d like to step up leaders who can be influential on political levels on economical levels and industry, train them.
The Freedom Church meets every Sunday at Rosanna Broadway, the ladyboy cabaret venue on highway six.Disclosure: An Insider staffer is the daughter-in-law of Jan Blondeel.