Christopher LaPel’s father was a Brahman priest serving Cambodia’s king in his role as the earthly incarnation of the god Vishnu. Imagine the shock and horror, therefore, when one evening at dinner he saw a cross hanging around his son’s neck:
One day while our family had supper … I reached to pick up food and the ivory cross hanging around my neck fell forward. My dad, when he saw the cross, raised his voice and cursed at me. He pulled me and said, “You shouldn’t wear the cross. Remember we are a Buddhist family, we don’t want you to wear the cross.” I didn’t even know what it meant.
Then came 1975 and the Khmer Rouge. Christophe’s mother and father were worked to death, and his sister and brother were executed. Christopher himself narrowly escaped death:
I worked 14 to 16 hours a day without food, sunrise to sunset. I lost a lot of weight—70 pounds in that time. Two-thirds of my friends died of either execution, malnutrition, overwork, or disease. One time I was very ill, I had a high fever—I’m not sure if I had malaria or typhoid, but I had missed work for three or four days. During that time, missing work for a couple days meant you were useless to the Khmer Rouge, they didn’t want to keep you.
We knew, during this time, if someone calls you during the night you would die. One night they called me to meet the Khmer Rouge comrade to ask why I was missing work. I knelt down, shaking from fever, when one of them put his hand on my chest and my head. He opened my shirt and touched my ivory cross. At that moment I heard a voice, I’m not sure who, say, “This guy is really sick, we need to let him go take a rest.” I came back to my hut and thought: There’s something about my cross, it’s amazing!
Christopher escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he converted to Christianity. Later he relocated to Long Beach, California, became a Christian pastor, and embarked on a life of turning others to Christ – and, might I say, treading truly in Christ’s footsteps.
In late 1995 pastor LaPel was conducting baptisms and training sessions in western Cambodia when village mathematics teacher called Hang Pin came to one of the sessions. Hang Pin said he was not a Christian, but had come at the urging of a friend. Under LaPel’s teachings he was accepted Christ and was baptised. The previously withdrawn man was transformed. He became relaxed and outgoing, teasing others, dressing neatly, sitting in the front row and taking notes. Filled with enthusiasm, he told his pastor that he could hardly wait to get home so that he could spread the good word. Which is what he did, establishing and leading a village church with 14 families.
But there was something dark about this newest convert. Prior to his baptism he wondered aloud to LaPel whether his brothers and sisters in Christ could forgive the sins he had committed in his past. His only consolation was that God forgives everything – “Thank God that the Lord forgives me!” LaPel didn’t ask questions – his role is to lead sinners to God, not to judge them.
LaPel had no idea that the star convert named Hang Pin was actually Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, who as director of the Khmer Rouge interrogation centre known as S-21 (or Tuol Sleng) was responsible for the torture and murder of 14,000 men, women and children.
Enough has been written about Tuol Sleng. Far more interesting is Duch’s soul, and that of Pastor LaPel. Early in their relationship Duch told the LaPel that he had never felt love in his childhood or later. “When he turned to Christ, love filled his heart.” What he seems to have felt before he met LaPel was deep and consuming guilt, as he told Christophe Peschoux, country representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights shortly before his arrest in 1999:
“[A]ll those who were sent to me [at S-21] had to be killed, whether man, woman or child, without distinction.”
Peschoux: “Even the children? Were they also considered as enemies?”
Duch: “Yes, even the children.” (Peschoux has a footnote: “Kaing Guek Eav averted his face, visibly affected, and plunged into his memories.”)
Christianity seems to have brought Duch a measure of peace in the prison where he serves a life sentence for crimes against humanity, the only KR commander to have accepted his guilt and expressed remorse.
I think he must be the loneliest man in the world.
Christopher LaPel testified at his trial. He didn’t ask for leniency (nor did Duch), but testified to the power of God to transform a sinner. To this day he visits Duch in his cell, where they read the Bible and break bread together.
• Brad Dupray, Interview with Christopher LaPel, Christian Standard, 4 August, 2010.
• Caroline Gluck, The Killer and the Pastor, TIME magazine, July 12, 1999
• Christophe Peschoux and Haing Kheng Heng, Itinerary of an Ordinary Torturer: Interview with Duch, former Khmer Rouge commander of S-21 (to be published later in 2016).
• KarstenRauPhotography.com (photo of child victims at Tuol Sleng)