Mark Ellis, seasoned ASSIST senior correspondent, brings this great testimony of forgiveness and grace:
After the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia, Christopher LaPel lost his privileged lifestyle and nearly his life. After he found Christ in a refugee camp, he became a soul-winner himself – bringing hope to one of the most notorious monsters of the killing fields.
‘I was raised in a Buddhist family,’ says the founder of Hope for Cambodia. His father worked in King Sihanouk’s palace and, as a boy, Christopher often spent time there.
One day he asked a palace engraver, ‘Could you make a cross for me?’ He had seen the iconic symbol atop churches in Phnom Penh, but didn’t know what it meant. He began to wear an ivory cross around his neck.
But one evening at dinner, the cross slipped into view from the inside of his shirt. Christopher’s father saw it for the first time and his face grimaced. With a low growl, he let out an expletive and said, ‘I don’t like you to wear that.’
Set back by his father’s visceral reaction, the younger LaPel agreed to take it off. ‘Before every meal I removed it, even though I loved it,’ he recalls.
‘A cross’ and grace
In 1975, when Christopher was in his late teens, the Khmer Rouge came to power. Led by Pol Pot, they demanded the entire population of 2.3 million vacate the capital city of Phnom Penh within three days, including the elderly, children, monks, doctors and nurses, hospital patients, wounded and sick people, even mothers who had just given birth.
Christopher saw the entire city emptied. The evacuation turned into a three-year ordeal, with most of the population enduring extreme hardships. ‘Nearly everyone was either executed, faced starvation or worked to death,’ he recounts with sadness. During the violent rule, 2.5 million perished, almost a third of the population in what became known as the Cambodian genocide.
His parents both died, along with a brother and sister. ‘They forced my father to work until he died,’ he says. His mother and sister worked 14-16 hour days doing hard manual labour until they died. His brother was executed.
Christopher worked in the fields with other young people. ‘We worked 16-hour days with our hands,’ he says. His body got weaker and weaker due to the workload and lack of adequate nutrition. He got sick and missed work for three days. ‘Usually they killed you if you missed work three days,’ he notes.
On the third night, Christopher received a call to report to the army headquarters. ‘Everyone they called at night never came back; they disappeared,’ he says. They took him to a hut where they yelled at him to get down on his knees. ‘Are you really sick?’ one officer demanded.
Weak and almost delirious from fever, Christopher could barely keep from falling over. His cross fell off from his neck and he grabbed it, clutching it in his hand. ‘He really looks sick,’ one officer said. ‘Why don’t we let him rest?’
Christopher couldn’t believe his ears. Even more amazing, he was transferred to a hospital. While he couldn’t understand the meaning of the cross, he felt that in some mysterious way, it bought him a measure of grace in these desperate circumstances. His body recovered sufficiently for him to return to work, but shortly after that Vietnam invaded Cambodia. He was only 35 kilometres from the Thai border and, one night, the Khmer Rouge disappeared. ‘That night we ran for our lives,’ he recalls.
He had no idea where his family might be – or if any of them were still alive – but he fled across the border into Thailand, and landed in the Khao- I-dang Refugee Center run by the UN. When he arrived at the camp he realised that he’d lost his cross.
Khao-I-Dang refugee camp once held 160,000 refugees
On that first day at the camp, a call went out for translators and, because he could speak some English and French, he was chosen.
Committing to follow Jesus
Christopher met a UK missionary working with Christian Outreach. ‘She spoke to me personally in French and Thai,’ he recounts. ‘She told me that Jesus died on the cross for my sins.’ His eyes grew wide as he suddenly, at last, understood the meaning of the cross.
The woman explained the gospel message to him, and Christopher surrendered his life to Jesus. ‘I rejoiced in that moment,’ he recalls. He felt peace, joy, love and hope flood his soul in ways he had not felt before. ‘I want to tell my people about Jesus,’ he told her. ‘I want to serve him the rest of my life.’
As Christopher began to follow Jesus, he experienced a ‘180-degree change’ in his life. He also met a young Christian woman named Vanna who became his wife.
Through some remarkable circumstances, they were able to emigrate to the United States in 1980. ‘Only married a week, we arrived in Nebraska,’ he recalls. Five years later, they moved to Long Beach, California, and Christopher attended Hope International University. He was eventually ordained and became active in a Cambodian-American church.
In 1992, Christopher made his first trip back to Cambodia. He began to minister in the refugee camps, just as he had been ministered to as a younger man. He was also on a quest to find his family. Sadly, he discovered the horrible outcome of the killing fields for his parents and two siblings. But four of his brothers and sisters were still alive! ‘I found them and they were all able to come to America and become believers,’ he says.
With one of his American church elders, they went to Cambodia and planted a small fellowship of believers in the Battambang area. ‘We started with one, then it grew to five, then the fellowship grew to 27, then 56,’ he says. Today, there are 150 churches planted in northwest Cambodia that grew from that one fellowship. Average Sunday attendance at these churches is 7,500.
A killer comes to Christ
Where death once reigned in the killing fields of northwest Cambodia, new life has arisen in Christ. Perhaps one of the most remarkable stories of a transformed life happened after Kang Kek Iew, also known as Comrade Duch, showed up at one of the leadership training seminars Christopher conducted in 1995.
Duch was using an assumed name, Hang Pin, and did not want anyone to know his true identity. He had been the head of internal security for the Khmer Rouge and headed the infamous S-21 prison camp in Phnom Penh where thousands were tortured and killed. Of the 17,000 who entered the doors of S-21 as prisoners, only 10 are known to have survived.
After prisoners were interrogated and tortured, Duch personally ordered their executions with chilling notations to his underlings. Notes found after the war included his command to ‘smash to pieces,’ written on a list of teenagers and children, or to ‘take away for execution’ or keep for ‘medical experiment’ on a list of women.
Mass graves in a former orchard became known as the killing fields
Blood was completely drained from over 100 prisoners to use for transfusions on wounded Khmer Rouge soldiers. In many ways, Duch ranks as one of the worst war criminals in modern history – seemingly beyond redemption. Christopher took note of him when he came to one of the prayer meetings. ‘He had recently lost his wife and he was hopeless and depressed,’ he says.
At the end of the meeting, Duch approached. ‘My sin is so deep,’ he told Christopher who encouraged him, ‘As long as you confess your sins and turn away from them and believe on the Lord Jesus, you will be saved.’
Duch’s head hung down, as he recognised his responsibility for thousands of deaths and atrocities in the killing fields. As tears rolled down his cheeks, he confessed his sin, and realised that the penalty for all those sins – and the enormous burden of guilt he carried – had been transferred to Jesus on the cross.
Conversion, change, commission and confession
‘The next day I baptised him and his life completely changed,’ Christopher says. ‘He moved from the back row of the church to the front.’ Christopher knew he had done some horrible things in his past, but still didn’t know his true identity or the extent of his war crimes.
After two weeks, Duch went back to his village and started a house church that quickly grew to 14 families. With training and oversight from Christopher, Duch became a lay pastor. Christopher also led Duch’s sister to Christ.
In late 1998 or early 1999, Christopher received a letter from Duch asking for prayer. He planned to publicly confess his crimes and turn himself over to government authorities. What kind of crimes did he commit? he wondered.
When Christopher learned Duch’s true identity, he could barely speak. The man he had led to Christ was one of the key leaders of the Khmer Rouge – who were responsible for killing his parents, two siblings, and thousands of his countrymen.
Christopher reading Bible with Duch in prison
In 2007, Duch was formally charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity by an UN-backed court in Cambodia. During the trial, Duch was taken to the site of the former prison camp. Overwhelmed by the horrible memories – and God’s transformative power in his life – he said, ‘I ask for your forgiveness – I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might.’
Duch admitted his crimes before the court, including his role in the deaths of some 12,000 prisoners, and received life in prison due to the ‘shocking and heinous’ nature of his crimes, with no chance of appeal.
Jesus – forgiveness and hope
Christopher testified at Duch’s trial. For an hour and a half, he shared about the power of Christ to lead a person to repentance and of God’s grace. He talked about Christ’s ability to transform and rebuild a life. He did not ask for leniency for Duch, but spoke about the reality of his remarkable change. International lawyers, judges, and 500 spectators listened in rapt attention.
After Duch was imprisoned, it was 10 years before Christopher saw him again. When they met, Christopher did not react with hatred or anger due to the prior deception or Duch’s role in his own family’s loss. Instead, he looked Duch in the eye and said, ‘I love you and I forgive you.’
Duch is still in prison and has worn out one Bible that Christopher replaced with another. ‘I meet with him every time I go to Cambodia,’ Christopher says. ‘We pray, break bread, and have communion together.’
‘We are all guilty sinners,’ Christopher notes. ‘Jesus Christ is the only hope of the Cambodian people. He is the only one who can change a life from a killer to a believer.’