The tangle of moto’s and pushbikes that always seems to accompany a gathering of Khmer children is the only sign that something is going on behind the high brick walls that enclose a villa just a few kilometres from the centre of Battambang city. Through the narrow gate and around 200 Khmer children, ranging from toddlers to young adults, crowd the grounds. The ones that are not playing volleyball or kicking around a scuffed football are taking part in one of the three boisterous classes.

Easily distracted, the sight of barang strangers raises curious, friendly smiles from the children. The only faces that are not smiling are the young westerners that loiter on the fringes of the classes exchanging questioning glances as we approach. They are clearly suspicious of our presence. Simply asking what is happening in the classes is met with nervous and evasive answers from two young American women and barely disguised hostility on the part of their male companion. Eventually, one of the women produces ‘Group Leader’, Garth Gustafson’s  business card. The card reveals that the school is a project of the ‘University of the Nations’, the Cambodian registered project of the international Christian evangelical organisation ‘Youth With A Mission’.

The University of the Nations attracts Khmer children with the promise of free English classes that are little more than sermons.
Is a short prayer enough for the YWAM’ers claim to of themselves that ‘These people have turned the world upside down’?
When patients refused their prayers, the YWAMers accuse them of being ‘bitter’.
A quick five minutes of prayer and a the patient is left in the hands of God.
The group pray for a patient’s reluctant soul at the Beobee Military Hospital.
Investor Herb Rawlings is shown around the Rawlings Institute by Bruce McKee

Evangelism is the most recent face of Christianity in Cambodia’s four hundred year relationship with the religion. The first Catholic missionaries arrived in the mid 16th century and  permanent Portuguese and Spanish missions were established by the 1570’s. Missionaries seem to have had limited success; even by the 20th century there were still relatively few converts in Cambodia.

In part this can be explained by Catholic missionary success, on the back of French colonisation, in Vietnam which saw less attention being paid to converting Khmers. Even within Cambodia’s borders Vietnamese Catholics outnumbered Khmer. Bishop of Phnom Penh, Émile Destombes, who arrived in Phnom Penh in 1964, explains, “Before the expulsion of 45,000 Vietnamese Catholics by Lon Nol in 1970, the face of Catholicism was Vietnamese.” It was when the, mainly American, evangelist groups arrived that claims of an explosion in the number of Christian converts began to be made.

The evangelists had arrived on the wave of Khmer refugees returning from the Thai border camps and began to add to the existing four churches in Phnom Penh. Some of the claims of mass conversion were controversial to say the least. The infamous Texan evangelist, Mike Evans, to this day claims that he was responsible for 10,000 conversions during a visit to Cambodia, even though in reality he was run out of town by an angry mob.

But then controversy is nothing new to the evangelical movement. From its origins in the revivalist movement of late 19th century America to its resurgence in the 1980’s, rogue groups and preachers have shaken the general public’s faith in evangelists. In Cambodia, accusations flew that promises of cash payments were made for attending church, that preachers falsely claimed the ability to heal and that some of the groups had cult-like indoctrination sessions.

Bishop Destombes has been witness to 40 years of Christianity in the country and sees evangelist groups as an “invasion from the US. These churches spread money to Khmers to convince them to join them. The problem for the Catholic church is that the average  Khmer does not separate the Catholic church from any other – to a Khmer, they are all ‘Christian’.” And it is not just the Catholic church that gets tarred with the same brush.

Bruce Mckee is an evangelist preacher that came to Cambodia after 16 years in the Philippines. With funding from the American Christian group, the Rawlings Foundation. Bruce is building the Rawlings Institute, a college offering degrees in agriculture, English and computing. He does not believe that aggressive methods are either helpful or capable of achieving their aims.  “I believe you catch Christianity, you can’t force someone to become a Christian. And if they are coming for food, a job or money, well, that just isn’t really a believer.”

Bishop Destombes and Bruce have both spent long periods of their lives in Asia and Cambodia, and while they may have differences of opinion on matters of religion, both speak convincingly of their deep affection for Cambodia. With so much of his life lived in Cambodia it’s no wonder that Bishop Destombes talks with genuine emotion, “I have a Khmer heart, I deeply respect and love Cambodia and Cambodians.” Bruce too holds a deep respect for the country that, with no little guilt, he has learnt so much about since his part in the Vietnam war. “I love their culture I love everything about Cambodia. I don’t want to make them American. I’m American, I’m a Texan and that’s just part of me. 

Investor Herb Rawlings is shown around the Rawlings Institute by Bruce McKee

Invasion from the US. These churches spread money to Khmers to convince them to join them. The problem for the Catholic church is that the average  Khmer does not separate the Catholic church from any other – to a Khmer, they are all ‘Christian’.

Back in Battambang the same cannot be said for Garth Gustafson of ‘Youth With a Mission’ (YWAM, pronounced ‘why-wham’). There are haunting echoes of the cultural hegemony and moral superiority of Europe’s colonial past in Garth’s conversation. From his talk of “hot and cold climate ‘types’” and the latter’s, that is the West’s, ‘cold’, less passionate nature and stronger work ethic to the transparent, “That’s why countries in the West have been successful for a long time, because they have been founded on the basis of the truth…our governmental strategies are from the bible.”

In one unguarded moment he even spoke of his mistrust of the Khmer children attending the youth centre saying that, “primitive people often use smiles to hide their lies”. There is plenty of speculation surrounding YWAM, some of it undoubtedly blogsphere conspiracy theory, some of it more compelling, that claims YWAM to be both ‘cult-like’ in its ‘conversion’ methods and part of a larger right wing Christian coalition with its roots in the post-war fascist movement.

Founded by American, Loren Cunningham who was ‘told by God’ to send young people into the world to share the gospel, YWAM now claims over 11,000 full time staff and is one of the largest Christian organisations in the world. Last year even former President Bill Clinton became involved in an alleged YWAM linked propaganda campaign over the ABC television mini-series ‘The Path to 9/11”. In a neatly timed release, just prior to congressional elections, the series caused an uproar over its attempt to lay blame for the horrific events of September 11th 2001 at the door of President Clinton’s administration. The film’s director? David Cunningham, son of YWAM founder Loren Cunningham. YWAM strenuously denied any connection between David’s directing work and YWAM but commentators still point the finger at the involvement of YWAM auxiliary, The Film Institute (TFI), whose interns were used on the set of the documentary. Interestingly, Garth spoke proudly about YWAM “even working on films in Hollywood.”

Gart Gustafson makes an extra effort to ‘reach out’ to young monks.

Perhaps the most shocking part of a visit to YWAM in Battambang is the absence of any sort of genuine charitable work. In Koh Kong, Bruce talks at length about expanding the Rawlings Institute to include pre-medical and nursing degrees. Bishop Destombes discusses the Catholic churches NGO work, explaining that, “We do not help to convert, we just do it to help. We help anybody, regardless of his or her religion. Our institutions never mix development with conversion or religion.”

But at YWAM’s ‘Youth Development Centre’ what they call English classes are barely disguised sermons. Literature that does not directly refer to the gospels has a quasi-religious flavour on the usual American right obsessions of family and personal responsibility. Religious and moral nouns plaster posters and white boards and the untrained teachers rely on ‘Him [God] giving [them] the curriculum for each subject’.

Garth talks proudly of their work with AIDS patients at the Beobee Military Hospital. The hospital is a decaying, former Malaysian United Nations forces hospital on the outskirts of town. Shortages of drugs and the nature of the disease itself see doctors being able to do little more than comfort those patients in the final stages of AIDS.  The patients themselves were clearly unimpressed by the YWAMers offers of prayer, and would be accused of being “bitter” in return for declining them.

Long, a 42 year-old farmer, is approaching the final stages of his illness and his wife Sokha and their two young children are infected with the HIV virus. Long looked on as the YWAMers prayed for another patient and afterward angrily described how “they come here and do nothing, nothing for us. They look for the really sick and dying and try to make them Christian. They bring bibles but nothing else”.

On leaving the hospital one of the Hawaiian YWAMers women spoke of how she felt “…really uncomfortable in there. What if the mosquitoes give me AIDS?” A hint of the level of education these self styled teachers want to bring to one of the few nations in the world where HIV infection rates are in decline. If there is anything to appease worries over groups like YWAM it is in the attitudes of the Khmers themselves. Long and his wife, along with most of the other patients, even in their desperate situation, are clearly not so easily taken in by the promises of everlasting life and back at the Youth Development Centre similar attitudes are evident. Despite the efforts of the YWAMers ‘Monk Ministry’ and their claims that ‘God is moving among the monk population of Cambodia…. They are meeting with Jesus and allowing His truth and transformation to come into their hearts and minds.’

A Khmer worshipper takes the holy sacrament at a church in Battambang.
Mid-week evening prayer and sermons in the grounds of the University of The Nations villa.
Religious teaching materials and posters decorate every classroom.

Vireak, a young Buddhist monk, just smiles and says that “the lessons are mostly about Christian God, but we do not care because we want to get English words from it….. I will learn there because it is free and the teachers are from America some are even Korean, Australian and English.”

In light of this maybe Garth’s sermon on our last visit to the youth development centre can be viewed as a little optimistic.  “We want to see your nation change to be a good nation. To glorify God…it’s the best life ever.” Garth and his YWAMer friends should perhaps take note of Bishop Destombes words when, with the full conviction of a man that knows of his own religion’s historical wrongs, says, “I feel sorry for Cambodians who are exposed to this, but I’m also worried about the consequences for Christianity in Cambodia and for religious freedom in general. The biggest freedom for anybody is to think freely.”

Read more articles