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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - An unorthodox catholic

An unorthodox catholic

Catholic priest Francois Ponchaud got married 31 years ago. "We form an old

couple now. We've stayed together a bit by long term affection, and since we met

by accident on Nov 4, 1965, sometimes we have scenes," he says. The French-born

Catholic missionary is talking about Cambodia - his unusual life companion.

A teenage dream, Asia was at the time the mysterious promise towards a bright future.

After he finished his studies in Theology at the renowned Gregorian University in

Rome, Ponchaud was appointed by the Paris Foreign Mission to come to Cambodia.

"Appointed by mistake, kept by oversight," Ponchaud has become somewhat

of an institution here in the Kingdom. And his bride of just over three decades is

the master in his own parish, ruling the man from deep with-in. She shaped him into

what he is today: a man strongly rooted in Cambodia.

Ponchaud punctuates his speech with precise dates like a living library in this land

of oblivion. "He is a Khmerologue," says Sam Rainsy, explaining how Ponchaud

was the first to write about the sufferings of Cambodia's people. Eyewitness to the

Khmer Rouge's swift takeover of Phnom Penh on April 17 1975, he published Cambodia:

Year Zero, a compilation of his own experiences and testimonies gathered from refugees.

"After five years under Prince Sihanouk's monarchy, five years in the Lon Nol

Republic and three weeks of Democratic Kampuchea, I wanted to go back to France,

disgusted. There's no need to be nostalgic," he muses. As a voice for the refugees,

Ponchaud insisted on keeping his ear to Khmer Rouge radio, thanks to tapes sent to

him from Thailand. To have an objective judgement. "Most intellectuals had joined

the Khmer Rouge ranks, they had an ideology close to Rousseau's idea of the child

discovering the world by himself. Cambodia had to close its borders and develop from

within," he says.

Ponchaud did not side with the Khmer Rouge, but there was no hope under the corrupt

Lon Nol regime. "We chose common sense and we got it wrong," says the priest.

Relaxed, sitting on the top floor of the Cambodian Catholic Cultural Centre he founded

three years ago to help foreigners learn the Khmer language, Ponchaud catches every

opportunity to make a small remark in Khmer to some passing student. "The more

I know Cambodia, the less I understand it, and the more I speak Khmer the less fluent

I feel. I'm only a foreigner, after all, trying to walk alongside the people of Cambodia,"

he admits humbly.

Born of peasant stock, Ponchaud understands "le petit peuple" and spends

ten days a month in Battambang province teaching Cambodian seminarians the meaning

of the Bible. "I am a small person and perhaps my only achievement is the translation

of the Bible into Khmer," adds Ponchaud, referring to his recent three-year

effort accomplished with five Khmer associates and soon to be published.

Somehow it is Ponchaud's contribution to this country which taught him about Buddhism

and the primacy of the spiritual realm over that of the material, the importance

of meditation, the temperance of passion, and modesty in his own faith. "I had

to reinterpret my own faith. Buddhism changed me a little."

Far removed from an era when missionaries were appointed to bring enlightenment to

peoples living in darkness, and steeped in the generation of Vatican II, Ponchaud

was sent here to share a spiritual experience. "Buddhism and Christianity go

together well. Christians can also teach the Khmer people how to be creative, react,

and get united to fight for human rights," he says.

Politically engaged during the Khmer Rouge regime while he stayed in France, Ponchaud

no longer has sympathy for political parties. None of them. "I am happy to see

Cambodians going in the streets, slowly moving to ask for their legitimate rights

and showing a sense of collective conscience." But to those who ask him to start

his own political party, he replies that politics is none of his business.

He wrote for La Croix and Le Monde in France, condemning first the Khmer Rouge regime

and then the Vietnamese occupation which followed. Ponchaud could not be accused

of taking sides: he had criticized all sides freely. In an editorial published in

Le Monde in 1979, he denounced the Vietnamese occupation without fear of being seen

as defending the Khmer Rouge because he had previously condemned their atrocities.

"I could not remain silent because it was about human rights, but politics is

an urban luxury I am not interested in," declares the 58 year-old Father.

In the 1980s Ponchaud gave birth to Espace Cambodge in Paris, an association helping

Cambodians to integrate into French society. He also wrote several issues of Echange

France Asie, an informative bulletin published by the Foreign Missions in Paris.

"I am just a bridge between two cultures," he says reflecting on the past.

But perhaps more than he realizes, as he gently cradles visitors with testimonies

and lighter anecdotes never short of humor, Ponchaud paves the way for new arrivals

into the depths of Khmer culture.

With a keen eye, having watched closely the recent cyclone of Khmer history, Father

Ponchaud is a living - and sometimes provocative - witness to Cambodia's tumultuous

ups-and-downs. Beyond every Cambodian smiling veil, hides a withdrawn individual

which Ponchaud respects profoundly.

It is with a touching sincerity that he confesses how guilty he sometimes feels to

be a Christian. "Buddhist monks sometimes say the Christians are destroying

Khmer culture. I am ashamed of the Bible used as a means to enslave people, taught

as a unique word of truth," says the Catholic priest.

Far from being a traditional man of the cloth, when it comes to religious history

Ponchaud knows his lessons and explains that there are all sorts of misunderstandings

regarding the Catholic community in Cambodia. "The first... Christians to arrive

in the region came from Sulawesi in 1660. Christianity was brought here from within

Asia. A lot of people also have a tendency to think that the Catholics in Cambodia

are Vietnamese," he adds. Persecuted by the Emperor in Saigon, accused of colluding

with the French against the government in power, Vietnamese Catholics took refuge

in Cambodia in 1859. "The church was 'Vietnamese-ized' until 1950 but there

are 6,000 Khmer Catholics today in this country," he notes.

Ponchaud urged caution to the 1,500 Cambodian refugees he met while he stayed on

the Thai border from converting to Catholicism. "I told them that instead of

receiving help, as Christians they, themselves, would have to help people more deprived."

Ponchaud is worried about Cambodia's small people, and complains that the people

in the countryside are broken. "They don't have the strength to get up again.

They keep on making this pun with the name of the country 'Kampuchea' meaning 'Kama

not healed'," he says. He worries about seeing a massive exodus to urban areas,

illegal immigration to Thailand, villages emptied when men are absent. "People

don't care which party wins the elections in 1998. What they want is to eat, and

their children to be safe," he declares.

A Father's only pain should be the pain suffered by his children. Ponchaud's only

worry is for Cambodia's peasants. Like an old companion, he wishes his wife and kids

to stay peacefully by his side until he decides to go back where he came from. But

maybe he will stay here - by accident, of course.



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