The church in Anlong Veng district is a simple building, not traditional in its architecture and not like many of the ornate structures associated with Christian places of worship.
The inside mirrors the outside, no decorations or embellishments, just a simple wooden cross painted white. The walls are plastered with verses from the Bible and photos of the congregation.
There are around 20 people in their Sunday best, getting ready for mass in the northern province of Oddar Meanchey, along the Thai border. The group consist of mostly children, grandchildren and friends of Im Chaem, a former Khmer Rouge official, who in 2017 was acquitted of a slew of charges, including crimes against humanity.
The 77-year-old grandmother, who adopted Christianity in January 2018, was led to the religion under the direction of a man who survived a forced labor camp she oversaw during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Im Chaem holds fort during the religious ceremony, despite her pastor, Dub Doeun, leading the congregation in a reading of the King James Version of Matthew 2, from the Gospel of Matthew, which describes the birth of Christ and his early life.
“So, we need to celebrate, to recall his amazing grace, who came on Earth for the one reason that God came to redeem our sins, to absolve our sins by his blood,” said Pastor Dub Doeun.
The former Khmer Rouge member, dressed in a white shirt and silk skirt, sings a prayer at the end of the service. The congregation takes communion and proceeds to eat a lunch of rice and noodle dishes.
Sitting down with VOA Khmer, Im Chaem said that she had “offered” her land to Christ last year, following her conversion, as a way to atone for any sins she may have committed. She does not clarify if these sins are linked to the accusations against her.
“I was cleared from the charges. My case was finalized by dismissing the charges,” she said, not divulging anymore.
Im Chaem’s home is separated from the church only by a small vegetable garden. She said she had drawn up paperwork that had handed over the land to the church.
“I told my children already that I gave this land and the building to God, [they] can’t claim it,” she said.
While Im Cheam seeks redemption in giving up her land to Jesus Christ, many villagers are unhappy with her decision to give up Buddhism for Christianity. Cambodia is largely Buddhist, with only around 2 percent of the population identifying as Christians.
But her family is more supportive, who agree with her decision to embrace Christianity and to build the church on the family plot.
“I don't object as I also believing in Christ with her,” said her daughter, Kang Rin, during a phone interview with VOA Khmer.
The former Khmer Rouge member was charged in 2015, but the charges were dropped in 2017 – with many observers pointing to it as an example of the Cambodian government’s reluctance to continue the prosecution of former Khmer Rouge members.
The charges, which she had denied in the past, stemmed from her tenure as deputy secretary of the Koh Andet district in her native Takeo province and her role as district chief of the Preah Net Preah district in Banteay Meancheay province.
The tribunal ruled that Im Chaem was “neither a senior leader” nor “one of the most responsible” for the crimes committed during the regime.
Former Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, also embraced Christianity around the time of his trial in 2009, asking for forgiveness from the victims of the Khmer Rouge during his testimony. He was convicted for crimes against humanity and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Cambodia observer and author Peter Maguire said that it was unclear if the two former Khmer Rouge members had adopted Christianity to absolve themselves of their past.
But it was possible, he added, given that religions like Christianity promise release from past sins in return for embracing Jesus Christ.
“According to the doctrine in Christianity if they accept Christ as their savior, they absolve their sin,” he said. “So, I think in these cases you know they pick up the Bible [because of] guilt, desperation.”
Back in Oddar Meanchey, Im Chaem focuses on the Christmas service and happily greets guests and reminds them of the blessings of Christ. Church members have recently started bible study session, after nearly a year of holding mass.
“I will tell the church members and friends about the savior God, his birthday, and his resurrection.” said Im Chaem.