In this episode of Marksism, the editors discuss the latest articles, including one about Comrade Duch, who committed atrocities in the 1970s for the Khmer Rouge and later converted to Christianity. Melton then covers the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh) region, along with Turkey and Russia’s roles. Finally, LiVecche concludes by reviewing a new survey that suggests numerous Iranians are converting to Christianity.

Rough Transcript

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with yet another episode of Marksism—the good kind—with fellow editors and fellow Mark(c)s, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton, and today we’re going to brilliantly review two or three pieces from Providence over this past week. Firstly, a Cambodian Khmer rouge war criminal who died but had a rather interesting turn of events towards the latter part of his life—a conversion to Christianity. Another piece about the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Turkey backing the latter. And then finally, if there is time, a piece we published by Lela Gilbert about the growth of Christianity in Iran and potential geostrategic implications. So, Marc LiVecche starting with you, the Cambodia article about this Khmer rouge despicable prison master who presided over the death and torture of many thousands and yet, after the overthrow of the regime, did eventually convert to Christ, apparently being baptized at a Cambodian Baptist church and accepting his guilt for his terrible crimes—later sort of turning himself in, serving many years in prison. It seems that his conversion was sincere, although Christianity is a small, small minority in Cambodia so most Cambodians certainly were not impressed or very interested in his conversion to Christ. But what are some of the ethical and theological implications here? Obviously, we would agree that regardless of his spiritual state he certainly deserved to be in prison for the horrors he committed, and I think we probably also agree that had he been sentenced to death, that he certainly would have deserved that sentence—that in no way takes away from his conversion. In fact, very often it’s a mistake I believe that American Christian opponents of capital punishment will argue that somehow you can’t support capital punishment at the same time supporting the evangelism of those serving on death row, but as a Christian ethicist yourself, what are your comments?

LiVecche: I think you summed it up well, that’s pretty much it. Yeah, it’s I mean, I agree with all of that completely. He by, you know, by all description was a human monster and converted later in life apparently. I mean, the article suggests maybe a part of the impetus for his conversion was a recognition of his own, of having suffered a kind of horror himself with a home invasion, and during the home invasion, the murder of his wife in front of him, and that maybe this somehow, you know, helped him understand human frailty and the horrors of life. And he found his way into a Baptist church and eventually apparently converted. I note that you said, sort of turned himself in, and I’ve got that clanking around in my head as well that I had read elsewhere that the article we published had made it sound like he had this conversion event and then he went and he turned himself in. I thought there was, maybe he had been already hunted down and the authorities were looking for him, and so it wasn’t quite so voluntary. I mean, that our article does point out that a photojournalist sort of ratted him out, but it doesn’t sound as if that was necessarily the thing he was going to do spontaneously on his own out of some sort of recognition that he needed to face the music. But in any case, for sure Christian conversion does not abrogate the need for the legal system to run its course. Quite the contrary, I think Christians should be first to say, “I deserve punishment.” I remember, I meant to look up her name, but there was a woman on death row in Texas I think maybe some time ago, maybe decades ago or years ago. And she converted apparently while on death row and so a lot of people within the Christian community advocated for her—the commuting of her sentence—and, you know, that just doesn’t seem, that seems quite beside the point. You know, there’s this silly line in O Brother, Where Art Thou? by the Coen brothers where one of the three sort of escaped convicts converts—he’s baptized in a river—and he comes walking out of the water and he’s praising himself about all the sins being forgiven and one of the other characters, the George Clooney character, says, you know, comparing God to the state of Louisiana, says that the state of Louisiana, “Louisiana is a little harder to please.” And it’s a joke, but it’s also true that the legal system needs to run its course. And yes, if he was, if he was convicted to death, which would have probably been the appropriate punishment, then he should have gone to his death singing praises and accepted that as the just retribution for his crimes.

Tooley: Well Mark Melton, turning to our piece about Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey—Turkey’s involvement, what is your analysis of this situation? Obviously, Turkey seems to be more and more less aligned with the West, even though obviously, it’s still a member of NATO. So, what are your comments?

Melton: So, a few things to kind of point out here—the obviously, this article is getting a lot of attention I’ve noticed from a pretty huge Armenian diaspora. In fact, I think, I can’t remember the organization, but one of the contributors on to that article works for one of these Armenian organizations and so, this has taken a lot of interest this week. And so, yeah, so turkey is moving some of its forces, some mercenaries and others, out of Syria and moving them into Azerbaijan. A lot of countries in the region use Islamists and other proxies, and it kind of makes sense. Like my understanding is that they tend to fight pretty well, and so a lot of countries like to use these troops. And so, they’re moving them into Azerbaijan to fight the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. I’ve probably butchered that pronunciation. But so, that’s the name that a lot of the western media will use. And then the republic, oh I forget the other name, that the Armenians tend to use—Artsakh I think is—but anyway, so this region, this enclave within Azerbaijan, they’re going to, they’re moving in to kind of fight them off. And the, so yeah, it was a very interesting article. Another article that we published a few weeks ago by this Dutch writer Wouter, if I can pronounce his name correctly, I I’ve lost it here. Anyway, Wouter, he wrote an article talking about Russia’s involvement in the conflict and how it’s not just Turkey—Russia is also pretty decisive. Russia has a military base in Armenia, and in his piece he kind of talks about the kind of strategic and cold economic reasons for the conflict going on. There are some pipelines that have run through the region that would connect gas and oil from Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, and the Russian areas there into Europe. And so, this is incredibly strategically important. And one of the things that, when I think about this conflict, I think is very important is the ability for the small, seemingly for us—for Americans—it might seem like an unimportant area, but it can become incredibly important if it leads to conflict between Turkey and Russia. And so, my biggest fear, you know, for years has been a Sarajevo moment, a moment where some region that seems unimportant to us causes some great conflict, you know, confrontation. I don’t think that’s going to happen here—seems that the United States, Russia, France, and others are trying to, you know, create a ceasefire in the region. Turkey’s rejecting that. In fact, I tweeted, I saw an article earlier today that Erdogan said that he would not accept a ceasefire until the Armenians are removed from the region, which sounds pretty much like ethnic cleansing to me, but it’s a very harsh word from Erdogan. And he’s trying to expand his influence in the region but overall, my concern going forward is these little regions these, what we would consider maybe little regions, flaring up in conflicts. You know, we can deal and prepare for a conflict with China, we can focus on that, but I’m afraid that the United States and other countries may get blindsided in the next few decades with a conflict like this flaring out that we’re not prepared for.

Tooley: And obviously, although we did not state it specifically, Armenia is a rare majority Christian.

Melton: I believe it was the first. Yeah, I believe it was the first Christian nation. It was one of the first ones to officially convert to Christianity. I can’t, I don’t remember the year.

Tooley: And speaking of Christianity in the region, the piece we posted from Lela Gilbert about the growth of Christianity in Iran, about which there’s been so much anecdotal reporting, perhaps often exaggerating the extent of Christianity’s growth under the Islamic theocracy. But this recent survey seems to quantify it as perhaps there are a million Christians in Iran—still a tiny percentage of the overall population—but within a wider context of the survey, showing that incredibly perhaps only one third of our audience today identified with Shiite Islam and the majority identify as atheists, agnostic, religiously unaffiliated, with a very small Christian minority among a few other small groups. So, what we have to wonder, how much longer can the Shiite theocracy last with the situation, and amazingly, how this historically Shiite nation under its Shiite rulers of the last 40 years, they seem to have discredited the faith by which they rule. So, Marc LiVecche, what does this say to us as a Christian realist—this regime that had seemed so monolithic and seemingly has no end and yet, almost certainly is losing the support of its people not just politically, but also spiritually?

LiVecche: Right, I mean, I think as a Christian realist you proceed cautiously. You know, hope, hopeful not satanically optimistic, right. But hopeful and so, you pause long enough to figure out what are the wise ways of approaching this because it could, I imagine there are all sorts of things that we can do that will, that will hamstring maybe the opportunities that are there. I’m no Middle East expert, so I don’t necessarily know what those wise steps are. You know, one of our co-founders Robert Nicholson and the work that the Philos Project is doing, you know, those are good resources for people to pay attention to to know how to advocate. But for too long America, being a, you know, having a majority Christian population, has always seemed hesitant to openly support—loudly support—you know, credibly and practically support, the Christian minorities in various countries throughout the Middle East. It seems an easy lift for us to begin doing that better than we have been, you know, whether it’s Armenia, whether it’s Iran, there are credible ways that we can support the religious minorities in those places. And we should. We should do so. The caution comes from recognizing that, you know, this isn’t going to be an easy transition. If the transition does happen, the regime is not going to go quietly into that good night by any means. And you know, it’s death throws, if there are to be death throws, it could be severe and one would expect them to be severe. So, you know, if there is this religious vacuum opening up and more and more people claiming to be atheists and if Christianity begins filling that, which may that happen, one would suspect that the regime is not going to sit passively by and allow that to happen. So, Christian conversion is going to, you know, presumably become increasingly dangerous and persecuted. The article that we published links to another article that Lela Gilbert published elsewhere on the apocalyptic dimension of the Iranian regime, which is something that was rather new to me, but if there is an apocalyptic dimension, then it is, you know, it is a far more volatile religious war that is beginning to take shape. And, you know, with that apocalyptic dimension—again, the Iranian regime has every motivation to crush religious dissent—so it’ll be a, it’s a, I don’t want to say fascinating and then find fascination in other people’s potential troubles, but it’s going to be a fascinating period of time in the future. And I imagine it’s a great opportunity, but I imagine it’s one that we have to seize wisely. And so, you know, I look to the Robert Nicholsons and the Lela Gilberts and the Paul Marshalls and those who know the region better to help instruct us and as to how we should be moving forward. So, I look forward to their wisdom and we should give them a place to publish it.

Tooley: Of course, we tend to absolutize our opponents, often forgetting the Christian insight that rulers, regimes, and even nations—they rise and they fall. So, this seems to be one more example of a horrific regime that arose in the 1970s that seemed to represent a rather terrifying future, but perhaps now we see the end almost in sight.

LiVecche: From your lips to God’s ears.

Tooley: On that very upbeat note, Marc LiVecche, Mark Melton, thank you for another highly enjoyable episode of Marksism. Bye-bye.

LiVecche: Take care.

Melton: Thank you.