A Discussion with Reverend Heng Cheng, Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia

With: Heng Cheng Berkley Center Profile

August 4, 2010

Background:This discussion took place in Phnom Penh between Rev. Heng Cheng and Katherine Marshall, Augustina Delaney, and Ethan Carroll, in the context of WFDD's review of faith-inspired work in Cambodia. The interview focuses on Reverend Heng Cheng's work with the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia: from his assumption of the directorship of the organization in 1996, up to the organization's current role as the leading voice of the ecumenical community. Heng describes EFC's work on leadership training, discusses the variety of missionary groups working in Cambodia and the challenges of bringing together denominations with different views on issues such as domestic violence, and offers his insight into Duch's reconciliation with the Cambodian people and with God.

Can you tell us a little about your life and work? How did you come to be the leader of this ecumenical group?

I am rather unusual in that I come from a Christian family, from several generations back. I was brought up as a Christian, and followed the rituals and traditions, but did not really understand much. My grandfather was a Christian. And I have half Chinese blood, and a mix of cultural roots. My mother was Cambodian, and my father was part of the Chinese community. He had come to Cambodia from China during World War II when there were so many troubles in China). My family was very political. In China, my father and his family had been very much involved in nationalist politics with the Kuomintang, so as things there became heated and the Communists took over, he had to leave. He started a small business when he came to Cambodia.

Then, from 1970, Cambodia was changing. I was born in Kompot, but moved to Phnom Penh around that time. I lost my faith around that time; in the city, I did not set foot inside a church, but lived in a pagoda, as I had no family in Phnom Penh. I learned so much from the Buddhists; I realized then how important the Buddhist teachings and traditions are for this country.

When the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, I had to leave Phnom Penh. For some time I lived in Eastern Cambodia, for a year and a half. It was a very difficult time and the Khmer Rouge were killing so many people, including high school students, which is what I was at the time. I was captured and taken to the border with Vietnam, to be killed. But they let me get away, and I ran, alone, into Vietnam. I knew no Vietnamese at all at the time, and had a hard journey, crossing rivers. But I made my way and, with hard work I survived. That was in May 1977. I met Hun Sen [current Prime Minister of Cambodia] and other Cambodians there. We heard about the terrible sufferings in Cambodia, and wanted to do something, so we formed something of a movement there. I stayed until 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were ousted with Vietnamese support.

I went back to Cambodia then, but I realized that I could not work in Cambodia, above all because I could not control what happened through all the politics. The soldiers were attacking anything that came from outside (that was in December 1978). So I went back to Vietnam in April of 1979.

That was also the time when I found God again. There was no open Christianity in Vietnam at the time, so everything was done secretly. Coming from Cambodia, where there was no place or way then for personal protest, I decided to rejoin the church in Vietnam as my own form of personal protest. Soon, I found that the Vietnamese Church’s message of love touched my heart. I felt close to Jesus Christ. I served from 1979 in a church in Saigon and worked there for five years. My purpose then was to study the bible, to understand better, and I went to an underground Bible school. We did much work including visiting people in prisons. But through it all I finished the Bible school, and I was ordained as a pastor in 1984 or 1985.

At that time, I came back to Cambodia and started a church. This church welcomed Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Chinese, and we built it until 1990, very quietly. After 1990 the doors began to open up a little. The regime accepted some Christian churches. There was no right to show any sign of Christianity in public but we were allowed to worship in private. That period lasted until 1993, when there was a significant change. With the UNTAC mission [United Nations], Cambodia began to be more like a democracy and opened its doors to religion. The frontiers were more open. And Christianity had an opportunity to grow.

Before that most Christians were in secret, and worked hard, but most had little education. After the doors opened, missionaries began to come, openly. They found many difficulties, so many needs that the missionaries wanted to support. Outside support began to arrive. The church mission had been just worshipping but this began to change, and a lot of churches followed the money. Pastors of churches took very different roads and there were some tensions. Many churches lost sight of their original mission, and many became competitive with each other. I joined then with some good missionaries to worship and pray.

In 1994, there were only a few Christians in Phnom Penh, maybe 30 people. We formed an organization called the Evangelical Fellowship (EFC). It was about the body of Christ. I joined in 1995 and became part of the board in 1996, though I was still working as a pastor. In 1996 I was officially invited to be the director.

I was reluctant to leave the church where I was pastor, and at the time I did not speak any English. The first time they asked I refused. A leader from the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) told me that God needed my service because of my knowledge and capacity to learn, and so at last I accepted. I began to learn English, all on my own, with the Bible. I had the Khmer version on one side, the English on the other, and I learned phrase by phrase. I never went to school or had classes. At first I had to have translators when I met with people from outside. But I was committed to my work because of God.

Our challenge was how different churches could work together and how we could mobilize them. There were so many different strands. I came from a very conservative Christian tradition—Pentecostal—but was also very open. For two years I went to meet with each pastor individually, to encourage them to work together. It was not easy, and there were many conflicts. But people would not talk about them when they met face to face. The Cambodian culture is that when there is a problem, you say there is no problem. You keep the problem in your heart. A fellowship cannot be made by force; it has to be made from the heart. By meeting people one by one I tried to reach their hearts.

We agreed that there were four basic things we could do together. The first was to come together, as the body of Christ. Christ has many parts that were different; his body had arms, legs. But the body is one body. And there is one bible. So there can be differences, the denominations are not uniform but we can come together. We began by eating together. That is non-denominational. The CMA and Assemblies of God thus began to meet and eat together. The second stage was to pray together. Everyone has to pray; if you do not pray, it is not church. The third was to recognize that we would all die, so that was another way we came together. And marriage and family was another common point.

So as the fellowship, we began by sharing meals together, eating together. We began to go to funerals of members of other denominations. So slowly we began to come together.

Where were the churches of the Fellowship in regard to the development work that was beginning at that time?

In general the Cambodian church is very conservative, and at first they saw their role as only spiritual, not concerned with development. People from outside came, however, and visited communities and they began to work in the communities. The church members here had a very low level of education about the outside world. There were clashes between the Christian organizations and the churches.

Between 1996 and 2000 it was not easy to do development work. So I went to talk to World Vision, as it was receiving funds from the government and from churches. I went to talk to other NGOs. They needed partners. They said “we have the money.” It was easy to raise funds at that time. We were starting from the darkness and people wanted to help. But the churches were not easy. The church organizations lost a lot of money. They tried to do quick development in a community, but they did not understand the hearts and minds of the Cambodian people. People had suffered so much. They had seen so much violence. It was as if their hearts were in prison; they were still living in fear of the Khmer Rouge. They were hungry for God. And they needed everything. But the organizations did not understand that they had to develop themselves. They wanted to develop for them. But that does not change anything. When the project is finished, everything is gone. There is no sustainability. And some people were working for salaries, for promotions in organizations. In the churches, people were working with the heart, for no salary. And after the organizations leave, the church is left.

So I argued that we needed partnerships, and that we needed to support together a holistic approach. The approach could not be about bread alone or about the word alone. It had to train leadership. But I did not agree to give the funds to the church or to the community. Where we could help was in pointing to what are the needs.

What emerged as priorities?

There were so many needs: agricultural improvements, education, justice, HIV, gender, family.

But some people say Cambodia is poor, that everyone is poor. I say Cambodians are not poor. I think the problem is in the mind. Cambodians have land and they do nothing with the land. Look at Vietnam and how much it has done with the same resources. Poverty is in the mind; the mind is poor.

We have not done training directly but we help to facilitate the training of church leadership. The goal is mission transformation. We have helped to build a Youth Commission: Youth Equipped Kingdom. They meet youth outside. They run Bible and Sunday Schools for children. They work on social issues. They mobilize church leadership to support children. They act as big brothers to street children, and they also organize sports.

There is our Women’s Commission. They work on issues for the family. The problems of the family are the problems of the society. It is a problem of training, but not a problem for the women alone. We work with women, men, children, and their pastors to address conflicts in the family and outside: gender justice. That takes us also to advocacy, especially on child protection.

We also have a Relief and Disaster Management Commission. That involves especially fundraising; we do not do direct project work for relief in emergencies, but we reach out to Church members and their friends for donations, and train church members in disaster response and relief methods.

Finally, we have a peacemaker project, which involves counseling and work for reconciliation. All of our projects focus on advocacy.

What kind of reporting about church work is there today?

The first is the government statistics. They cover only the churches that are registered. Those figures say there are 1000 or so churches, with many denominations. Many have websites that give the history. These are the largest numbers.

But there are over 3000 churches by a different count. There are three levels: the largest churches, with over 120 members, are 15 percent of the churches. These churches have solid buildings. Then there are the 30 percent of churches with between 75 and 120 members. We call these home churches. They have some kind of building where they hold worship services. The rest, 55 percent, have fewer than 75 members, but more than 25. They are like a cell group and tend to meet in houses every Sunday, often in a different place. Often the adults and children are together, though we try to separate them.

The Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not part of our group but we have some links. The Adventists were with us in the beginning. They are very open in Cambodia. The situation is more open by far; in Vietnam, they are seen as a cult. The Catholics are not part of the Fellowship but we have good friendships and work together. Sometimes we organize common events and prayer meetings. EFC has been working toward sponsoring the Mission Kampuchea 2021 Meeting, to which people of all denominations are invited to come.

What is EEC’s mission?

We aim that every district will have a church, that everyone will have knowledge, and that the church will be transformed. EFC has support nationally and internationally. It has 50 member denominations now, and 20 plus national and more than 20 international members. It is a wide umbrella, with Anglicans, Presbyterians and many others.

Do you work with visiting missionaries? How are they organized?

Some come for very short visits and some stay longer. Many come to us for advice. We work with some of them. There are some tensions and problems. Some talk to the government and work with them, and some do not. The EFC represents 80 percent of church members in Cambodia, and we try to have a common voice. Because of this, we provide a powerful voice to talk with the government.

Many of the short-term missionaries come from Western Europe and America. They are the largest group in Cambodia. There are more and more from Korea and the Philippines. There are some special problems there, especially with the Koreans, who tend to want to work alone and who want to be the boss, in control. Some Filipino churches try to copy the Koreans. There is a problem with authority, and they are reluctant to put the Cambodian churches in front. Now there are more than 400 Korean missionaries here and more than 200 Filipinos.

What are the main challenges and problems you see?


It is a slow process. Management is the main issue and that is a step-by-step process.

The government tends to think that this is a Buddhist country and favors the Buddhists, and forgets to be neutral. We have recently begun having interfaith meetings which can be useful, and they are a reminder about diversity and teach groups about the others. We talk about these issues with the ministers. The Prime Minister is interested. But the challenge is to have the local authorities be neutral. It is often a personal issue, a matter of the individual’s faith.

Money can create problems. Churches are supposed to register under the law, but that costs money. They have to pay for the church permission. If you do not make special payments, you do not get the documents. And the payment schedules are not clear. Muslims have a lot of money coming in from international sources, and Buddhists do not face as many special boundaries because they are the “traditional” religion.

Christianity has grown up so fast. Many are still adjusting to the presence and role of the churches. There are questions about money and the funds they raise. There are also questions about how the churches and Christian faith relate to Buddhist traditional culture and beliefs. The churches have generally stayed away from politics. They only want to develop the country.

Christianity is still seen as rather foreign, as most of the missionaries and church leaders used to be foreigners. During the war everything was shaken up. The Americans supported friendly churches, so some churches have been seen as linked to the CIA. There are fears that the churches will convert and hurt children and destroy their culture. That is one reason why the government goes slowly in giving church permissions.

But the church has grown very fast, from almost zero 15 years ago. Now there are around 100 church denominations and they represent two percent of the population. The largest concentrations are in Battambang and Siem Reap. Kampot is also seeing growth of churches. There are many independent local churches that do not belong to particular denominations. They are started by an individual Cambodian pastor, often with no salary or support.

Is there the equivalent of a prosperity gospel element here?

There is some but it is not strong. It is growing somewhat, however. The Pentecostals and conservatives have a particularly hard time talking because the Pentecostal churches are growing so fast.

How much ethnic tension do you see and how does it affect the churches?

When the Board asked me to lead the EFC, I did not understand why, but now I understand better. I was different from most other pastors. I came from a conservative part of the church, did not speak English, but had lived in Vietnam and spoke Vietnamese.

The leadership in Cambodia falls into three groups. There is the very top leadership which was educated before the time of troubles and has a good education, most of them have a high school education. Then there is a large group whose educational level is very low. Between 1970 and 1983 were lost years. Remember that until 1993 people could not study English. It was not allowed. And now there is a new group that has much better education. That situation causes a lot of tensions. The group that is now in charge is mostly from those lost years, and they are afraid of what they missed, afraid they will lose their jobs. Many know only the Cambodian situation or the camps. They had a very difficult life there or overseas. They want to be the boss, still resent the power of America during the difficult years. But they have low education and capacity.

This explains some of the conflicts with the outside, with outsiders, including the Vietnamese, but no one wants to talk about these problems.

That is why they called on me to be Secretary General. I am Cambodian, but escaped to Vietnam, by myself. I lived in a communist system so I understand the sensitivities. I can speak Vietnamese. I understand the conservative and other parts of the church, and can mobilize people. I do not distrust people from other traditions. I do not want to focus on church planting but I understand the Pentecostals. I emphasize the way of the faith and the importance of prayer. I do not speak in tongues but understand that tradition. And, importantly, I can work between the second and third educational groups. So I am a good balance.

You cited gender issues several times. Do the churches take an active role on domestic violence?

We do but very carefully. We have to learn from experience because these issues have caused divisions in the past with the Assemblies of God, for example. We have to focus on health, and on compassion and love. Part of the problem came from praying for miracles and healing. That led to some abuse and neglect. We know that miracles can come but have to work on health and family with the realities of today. Instead, we try to focus on developing a proactive agenda everyone can agree on.

What about Duch [Kaing Guek Eav, former Khmer Rouge prison chief]? There is much discussion about the importance of his becoming a Christian and what that means?

We have to be very careful. I cannot say if Duch is a good Christian. That is between each individual and God. What he did was before he became a Christian, so he did not do it as a Christian. He is affiliated with the Church of Christ in Battambang, but no one knows much about his faith. People say he did good work there after he became a Christian.

What I do know is that he said who he was, did not try to hide when he was identified; he confessed then, and he has already confessed to God. He was good to the children he taught. He asked forgiveness from the Cambodian people. The law is clear on his responsibility. The 19 years he will serve seems reasonable but people are angry. Forgiveness is not easy and that is the heart of the problem. Every family lost people. In my own family I lost more than 40 people. I forgive because I am a Christian; God commands me to forgive. Sometimes it is difficult, because my brother died at S-21 [Khmer Rouge interrogation prison]. But the government permitted me to give Duch a Bible in prison.

What we need now is reconciliation for the Cambodian people. We need to study our bad side. Many are involved and many are still alive today who have responsibility. Khmer Rouge are killed every day. Revenge will not undo what happened.

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