Thirteen years ago, Christopher LaPel, a Cambodian pastor for the Golden West Christian Church in Los Angeles and a founding leader of the Cambodian Christian Church in northwest Cambodia, baptized a man he believed to be a teacher in Battambang province.
In fact, the newly converted was Kaing Kek Iev, better known as Comrade Duch, chief of the Khmer Rouge’s torture center, Tuol Sleng. Duch is now facing trial at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal, where he has admitted to responsibility for mass torture and killings.
In a recent interview with VOA Khmer, LaPel described his relationship with Duch, who at the time called himself Hang Pin.
“I first met Duch in 1995,” LaPel said, speaking after a reunion of churchgoers in Long Beach. “He came to me and said, ‘Pastor Christopher, I have done a lot of bad things. I don’t think my brothers and sisters can forgive me.’”
Duch came with a colleague to take part in a two-week Christian leadership traingin course, in the village of Chamkar Samrong, Battambang, LaPel said. The man was quiet at first.
“He said he was not a believer but had come at the urging of a friend,” LaPel said.
Hang Pin, or Duch, would listen to LaPel’s services, and eventually he asked to be baptized.
“On Jan. 5, 1996, I baptized Hang Pin, along with many other believers, in the Sangke river in Battambang town,” LaPel said.
The pastor returned to the leadership training the following year, but he did not ses Hang Pin. Then, in 1999, he did, in the news.
“In May of 1999, I saw this picture in every Cambodian newspaper,” LaPel said. “The man responsible for the deaths of up to 20,000 of my people now claimed to be a Christian, and I had unknowingly led him in.”
“An [Associated Press] reporters in Cambodia called me to inform me of Duch’s true identity,” he said. “As the reporter described him, I remembered than man I knew as Hang Pin—a short, thin, soft-spoken man in his fifties, and decidedly well-educated, as he spoke both English and French.”
“When he took part in our leadership training, he told me he was a teacher. I had no reason to doubt him. Reporters contacted me with media inquiries on his conversion and many asked me how was it possible for me to forgive such a man as Duch.”
Duch had been arrested and would be held by a military court until the UN-backed tribunal was established. He was transferred to the special court in July 2007.
“I was shocked when I found out who he really was, because what he did was so evil,” said LaPel, whose parents, brother and sister died under the Khmer Rouge.
Duch is now on trial for the deaths of 12,380 people. He has admitted responsibility and apologized to the families of his victims, though he has never admitted doing any killing himself.
“He came here and he asked permission to pray for those victims who died,” LaPel said. “He has a strong religious faith and is ready to testify. He would like to tell the truth, the whole truth, for what he did to his people.”
Since his arrest, LaPel has gone to see him twice, and he calls Duch a model convert. LaPel believes Duch has confessed his sins and is willing to stand witness against other former leaders of the regime now in custody at the tribunal.
In fact, LaPel said, a growing number of former Khmer Rouge have begun converting to Christianity. In Pailin, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold, has several Christian churches, and about 200 converts, he said.