My first nativity: remembering Christmas 1976 with Cambodian Christians

Do you remember your first Christmas nativity play? Perhaps it was in a school hall or a church? For a group of new Cambodian Christians in 1976, though, their first nativity play took place in a makeshift refugee camp in Thailand.

Cambodia had fallen to the Khmer Rouge regime the previous year, on April 17, 1975. Between 1975–1979, nearly two million Cambodians, around 25 per cent of the population, lost their lives.

A set of archive photos from OMF worker Alice Compain, give us an insight into the scene that Christmas in 1976.

Don Cormack, a former OMF worker who served in Cambodia and author of Killing Fields Living Fields, which tells the moving story of the Cambodian Church, since the 1920s, takes up the story:

‘These photos and the compelling story they tell perfectly portrays of the humble origins of today’s church among the worldwide Cambodian diaspora.

These educated young people whom the Khmer Rouge were especially hunting down and executing, were among the first wave of Cambodians to flee the “Killing Fields” from Battambang province in Northwest Cambodia. The UNHCR had not yet built any proper refugee camps. So, the refugees were held behind wire-fencing and living in simple huts and lean-tos, cooking outside over open fires. 

The scene is in stark contrast to the Christmas I recall in 1974 when thousands of Cambodian Christians celebrated their last Christmas in Cambodia, conscious, I believe, that it would be their last Christmas in freedom. Now, they had lost their families and were homeless, penniless refugees with no hope of returning.

Almost all those in the photos were new believers. They were brought to faith in Christ by the testimony of a handful of surviving Cambodian Christians from the church in Battambang, and the encouragement of missionaries like Alice. Alice and my colleagues had also been forced to flee from Cambodia, and were now serving along the Thai/Cambodian border ministering to the spiritual and physical needs of all those fleeing through minefields, past Khmer Rouge patrols, through the trackless, malaria-infested jungle to safety in Thailand. Many perished in the attempt. 

I especially remember how a rarely considered, generally omitted, aspect of the story of the nativity took on a powerful significance. I speak of the flight of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child to safety in Egypt, fleeing from Herod’s soldiers. This drama finished in a refugee camp in Egypt. The tiny baby who represented Jesus in the nativity scene was actually born in the jungle as his parents fled. They arrived in the camp exhausted, carrying the new born child. The young
couple playing Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married. I had the privilege of performing the wedding ceremony a few months later. Others in the picture would later be baptised in the rice fields when the spring monsoon came and filled the ponds around the camp.

The whole bedraggled community gathered to watch the amazing drama unfold, and ponder the fact that their Saviour, like them, had also been a refugee fleeing death from a cruel regime. The church in the camp prospered and grew, and most of them were, over the years that followed, resettled across North America, Europe and Australia, forming the beginning of the church among the Cambodian diaspora. This Christmas, nearly half a century later, some of these, and the next generation, will be involved in similar nativity scenes as they take the gospel back to the growing Church in their homeland of Cambodia.’  

Baptisms in 1977

Pray with us

  • Give thanks for the comfort of Emmanuel, knowing God with us in Christ this Christmas. 
  • Pray for those seeking refuge this Christmas, that they will find welcome, love, shelter and the hope of the Saviour.
  • Pray for churches around the world to extend the welcome of Christ to those in need this Christmas time.

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