It is true that Catholicism is part of Cambodia's history, though as Lachlan Hastings
optimistically surmises, there were only 61,000 Catholics in Cambodia in 1971 (i.e.
approximately 1 percent of the population), so I must confess I was somewhat taken
aback by the large spread given to the revival of Catholicism in Lachlan Hastings'
March 25 article. Could it be that the Phnom Penh Post was a Christian publication?
A conversation with the Editor allayed my fears and encouraged me to share the following
Construction of the Church as a community and the construction of its buildings have
always been seen as missionaries' role. Consultants are not the only report writers
of the world, French missionaries were required to make annual reports, carefully
stored in the French Mission archives in Paris. They paint a dismal picture of the
hard work facing missionaries after independence in Cambodia, missionaries who every
year had to report the low numbers of Cambodian conversions to Catholicism, and hence
justify their presence throughout the country through other labors, such as church
building, education and other worthwhile activities.
Having effected thorough research about post-independence architecture with Darryl
Collins and investigated the Cathedral of Phnom Penh in particular, I could not help
but notice that among the four large illustrations shown there were two naves. This
was obviously a mistake. The right hand photograph is the correct one. Yves Ramousse,
Archbishop of Phnom Penh, interviewed in 2001, thought the more Gothic-style one
second from the left might be the Ste Bernadette church at Kep.
Some facts: the cathedral was started under colonial rule in 1952 and dedicated in
1955. It was designed by a French architect, Maurice Masson, who died on January
1, 1955, and the construction was supervised by another French architect, Henri Chatel,
who confided to me when I interviewed him in 2001 that he thought this was "a
hideous building and he was not sorry to learn that the Khmer Rouge had destroyed
Joseph Chmar Salas was the first Cambodian Bishop. Fate had it that his ordination
was held on the April 14, 1975, but he chose this to take place in the simple church
of Russei Keo rather than in the pompous Cathedral. He was one of many Cambodian
Christians taken by the Khmer Rouge to Tain Kok near Kampong Thom, where they all
died of hunger and/or other tortures.
Yves Ramousse commented that the two steeples were never finished, ''fortunately",
for he too had misgivings about its overwhelming presence in the city fabric. According
to him there were 73 churches in Cambodia when Pol Pot took over.
In fact nobody seems to regret this cumbersome edifice that was not only scrupulously
demolished by the Khmer Rouge as reported by both Lachlan Hastings and Paul Reeve,
but whose very foundations were painstakingly removed.
It seems odd that Lachlan Hastings thinks the Khmer Rouge considered this building
"a show of Vietnamese imperialism," rather than French hegemony. And it
is also strange that the authors failed to mention the other major reinforced concrete
building demolished by the Khmer Rouge: the French Embassy that had only been built
in the mid-1960s by the French prix de Rome, Pierre Dufau. This could not have been
done to take revenge on Vietnamese imperialism could it? The present embassy was
built in the mid-1990s on the previous foundations.
There was likely more than one motivation for the Khmer Rouge to destroy this church:
it was at once a symbol of imperialism, a Christian building, a congregation dominated
by the Vietnamese population and part of their campaign to obliterate all religious
activity from the face of Cambodia. It should not be forgotten that all the mosques
were eradicated and Muslims persecuted, and they represented close on 10 percent
of the population.
Contrary to Paul Reeve's statement that "without a doubt the destruction of
Catholic Churches was thorough and systematic," the beautiful, small "St
Michel's" church in Sihanoukville survived and is still serving its community.
The reality is that this pretentious, academic, neo-Gothic Romanesque pastiche building
was an affront to the religious tolerance promulgated under the Sangkum Reastr Niyum.
The site in the East-West axis of Wat Phnom (at present Bayon Telecommunications
on Monivong) was an imperialist, even Pagan, choice, and so far removed from any
religious spirituality that the nave was orientated West in opposition to ancient
Christian symbolism by which it should have been orientated East. This was presumably
so that its impressive facade facing Wat Phnom was set off in the perspective of
the wide boulevard in true French academic style.
Lachlan Hastings cites Ponchaud as saying this building was a mistake but attempts
to justify it as a "bold move necessary ... amid continuing political instability."
I wonder what political instability in the early 1950s he is referring to? After
independence Cambodia went through one of its most prosperous and stable eras ever.
The Sangkum Reastr Niyum tolerated all religious practices, and according to Buddhism
"giving credit to another person's religion gives credit to one's own."
For me, this construction epitomizes the last stale breath of colonialism.
Helen Grant Ross