- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2000

BATTAMBANG, Cambodia Children swimming in the Thakee River erupt in giggles when the first few converts, dunked beneath the surface, emerge with water sputtering from their noses.

As hymns soar from a riverbank choir, bemused motorists stop to gawk at the spectacle from a nearby bridge.

In a country where Buddhism has been the chief religion for more than 800 years, Christianity is gaining a firm foothold. Over the past 10 years, the number of Cambodian Christians has grown from 200 to an estimated 60,000, says Steven Westergren of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, based in Colorado Springs.

"The growth is typical of countries that have come out of a communist situation, out of a deprived situation," Mr. Westergren says in his office in Phnom Penh. "The isolation and violence created a vacuum, an enormous vacuum. When the doors opened in 1990-91, Cambodians were like sponges ready to soak up anything both good and bad."

Some are skeptical, however, that Cambodia's new Christians are true converts. Critics assert that many missionary groups tie conversions to assistance digging wells, building schools and distributing food only after a poverty-stricken village agrees to a new church.

This produces so-called "rice-bowl Christians," they say superficial converts interested only in the accompanying aid.

The pastor on the Thakee riverbank is taken aback by suggestions his work might be motivated by foreign aid and insists his Protestant congregation does not dangle rewards in front of new members.

He is the Rev. Christopher LaPel, a former Cambodian refugee schooled in Los Angeles who baptizes almost 90 converts in a little over an hour.

"We don't take food and trade with them," Mr. LaPel says, gesturing with his hand to the baptismal riverbank. "This is love."

Twenty-one years ago, Mr. LaPel, the son of a palace official, was among thousands of Cambodians herded to the Thai border by the Khmer Rouge after Vietnam invaded and toppled that genocidal regime.

Starving and confused after four years in communist farming collectives, most of the refugees wound up in camps where Christian aid workers gave them food, shelter and Khmer-language Bibles.

Mr. LaPel says the story of Jesus "cut to my heart" and prompted instant conversion. "I gave my life to the Lord," he recalls. "Christ spared my life from the killing fields."

He emigrated to the United States in 1980, living in Lincoln, Neb., and Los Angeles, where he attended college. When the Cold War ended and Cambodia reopened, Mr. LaPel and other returning converts became front-line missionaries.

Mr. LaPel reasons that many in Cambodia lost faith in Buddhism after the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule and the harsh decade of Vietnamese occupation that followed.

"The Buddha never promised salvation," Mr. LaPel says. "He claimed only to be a good teacher, but a lot of Cambodians are looking for a messiah someone to save them."

However, Linda Harky of Church World Service, a Christian aid group in New York City that does not engage in missionary activities, said she did not think conversion was a "big deal" for some Cambodians.

"They 'convert,' but they remain Buddhist," she said.

Yin Soeum, a 33-year-old Cambodian who grew up in a refugee camp, agrees. Although he is grateful for the education he received in a church-run school, Mr. Soeum says he resented religious conversion being linked to extra food or passage to the West.

He asserts that the practice continues today in Christian organizations that offer well-paying jobs to young Cambodians, who in turn play a vital role in converting rural peasants in villages where aid is given.

"If our country was not so torn by war, I don't think it would be like this," says Mr. Soeum, who lives in Phnom Penh. "That's why Christians are considered so good. They offer jobs and give people money."

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