Dozens of pastors crowded around Hun Sen with smartphones extended, snapping selfies to commemorate the Cambodian prime minister’s first-ever meeting with local Christians.
The government session with 2,500 church leaders last summer was a significant gesture in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation where Christians were martyred and forced underground only a few decades ago.
Hun’s meeting “was a historic event that never happened before,” said Tep Samnang, executive director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia (EFC), an interdenominational network representing most of the country’s believers. “It’s a sign that [the government] accepts the Christian community more publicly.”
While persecution still percolates in other Southeast Asian countries, Cambodian Christians enjoy a promising sense of openness from leaders and neighbors.
“You are at peace, and I appeal to all religions in Cambodia not to harass you or your sects,” Hun told the pastors gathered in a luxe city hall in Koh Pich, the fast-developing “Diamond Island” in the center of the capital, Phnom Penh. Though Christians were not allowed to pray or share remarks during the meeting, Tep said, “at least it’s a spark to keep the fire burning.”
Christians remain a small-but-growing 2.5 percent of the 16 million people living in the former communist nation, where gold-trimmed temple rooftops twirl over both city skylines and rural landscapes. The temples serve as gathering places for dozens of nationally observed Buddhist festivals throughout the year.
But Cambodia finally has a generation of church leaders with the training and freedom to evangelize on a nationwide scale—and these emboldened believers are taking advantage:
- The Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA)—the longest-standing and best-known denomination in the country—estimates that the Cambodian Christian population has grown by more than half since 2010, and now includes over 300,000 believers.
- The EFC has launched Mission Kampuchea 2021, an initiative to plant a church in every village.
- New Life Fellowship of Churches, a booming network based out of Phnom Penh’s most popular megachurch, plans to start 500 churches and cell groups in the same period. So far, it has planted more than 200 in 13 of 24 provinces.
“This is a really open time, and we don’t know how long it will last,” said Neak Phanna, a 32-year-old English teacher among the wave of students who came to faith through the 2,000-member New Life since the new millennium began. “This is our kairos moment. . . . We see that Christianity is having an impact. God is doing what we read about in the Bible.”
Across denominations, leaders repeated to Christianity Today during a visit last fall that this is the time for big plans and big prayers.
They want to see Cambodia’s Christian population reach 10 percent, surging “the same way God changed South Korea,” said Sem Sophea, pastor of a New Life congregation in suburban Phnom Penh. As the capital has swelled, Sem has watched his own church plant grow from 25 worshipers to more than 300 today.
Getting a couple hundred people together on a Sunday morning, one American missionary said, is “like Saddleback in Cambodia.” Here, 80 percent of the population lives in rural provinces where the only Christian presence may be a small house church—if that.