ANLONG VENG, Cambodia — During his three decades with Cambodia's infamous Khmer Rouge, Ung Khorn planted land mines, set booby traps and led 200 soldiers into battle — killing an untold number of people.
Today, he and thousands of other ex-Khmer Rouge who once fought for the movement's Brother No. 1, Pol Pot, are seeking forgiveness and following a new leader: Jesus Christ.
"I had a bitter life when I lived with the Khmer Rouge. . . . I caused hardships, committed very vicious and cruel acts," said Ung Khorn, now a missionary who recently helped baptize several dozen former comrades.
"But when I started believing in Jesus, I became a gentler person."
The 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, implicated in the deaths of at least 1.7 million Cambodians from disease, starvation and executions, also preached atheism and sought to eradicate all traces of religion.
The ultra-communists converted Buddhist pagodas into prisons, pig sties and armories, tore down Phnom Penh's imposing Roman Catholic cathedral and killed Muslim leaders.
Now, they're flocking to Christianity, with supporters saying the ex-Khmer Rouge are acting out of religious conviction and critics claiming that they only want the material help — foodstuffs and other goods — that missionaries can provide.
"They're looking, searching for forgiveness because they're full of guilt," said the Rev. Setan Lee, who heads the evangelical organization Kampuchea for Christ. "And they found forgiveness in the gospel message of Christ, where other religions have no forgiveness."
The group has converted at least a few thousand ex-soldiers, including several generals, according to the Rev. Lee, a Cambodian-American who survived the genocide and later settled in Aurora, Colo. About 20 of the organization's pastors were once part of the Khmer Rouge.
In Anlong Veng — the movement's last stronghold, where Pol Pot died in 1998 — Kampuchea for Christ is building the town's only Christian church for its 400 members.
On a recent day, Ung Khorn and a pastor baptized dozens of women and men, some with shrapnel and bullet wounds, in a muddy brown lake dotted with dead trees.
The former Khmer Rouge fighter said of fellow converts: "In the past, they did a lot of bad things like me. But when they were baptized in the water they had their bad acts washed away today, so they can get on with a new life, new happiness and well-being to serve other people."
Although explosive experts were searching for stray mines nearby, the scene was almost idyllic — some converts-to-be closed their eyes and prayed, while some onlookers sang hymns.
But in impoverished areas like Anlong Veng, some converts may be lured by the food and other aid that evangelical groups supply, said Josephine Barbour, director of Church World Service in Cambodia, which doesn't do missionary work.
"That's a bit problematic — to go into an area where people's basic needs haven't been met," she said. "For me, God's not for sale."
Pain Rim, who maintained he did nothing wrong as a Khmer Rouge radio operator, said he converted to improve his life.
"I want to change my car to a new one, hoping it'll give a smoother ride," said Pain Rim, who lost part of his right arm to a land mine and lives near the town of Pailin. He added, "My mind is clearer and not entangled in misery, fear of death."
In Pailin, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold in northwest Cambodia where some of the movement's top surviving leaders live, there are four Christian churches — one claiming nearly 200 ex-Khmer Rouge members.
Christianity had already started to grow in Cambodia in the early 1990s, with the arrival of United Nations' peacekeepers there to implement a peace accord to end two decades of war. The Khmer Rouge were toppled by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979, but continued a guerrilla war from the jungles.
The number of Christian believers in Cambodia — where more than 90 percent of the country's 13 million people practice Buddhism — has grown from about 30,400 adherents in 1998 to some 50,000 today, according to the nation's religious affairs ministry.
Among the converts was Kaing Khek Iev, the notorious director of the Tuol Sleng prison under the old regime. Up to 16,000 Cambodians were tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng.
No senior Khmer Rouge member has ever been convicted for their atrocities, but the Cambodian government and United Nations agreed last June to create a tribunal to try the nation's former leaders.
Youk Chhang, born a Buddhist but now adhering to no particular faith, said he thought the rank-and-file Khmer Rouge soldiers were using Christianity "as a process to share what is inside of them — which they felt no one would listen to."
But he said turning to Christianity could not provide instant absolution for the former Khmer Rouge.
"There is a price to pay for it and even God cannot take it away from them," he said. "God has a very clear distinction between sin and responsibility."