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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Vanquished in the 70s, Catholic Church still on the mend

Vanquished in the 70s, Catholic Church still on the mend

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From left: Phnom Penh's first cathedral, the Preah Meada, was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge - only a gate-post and a small section of wall remain today; Two interior views and a work-in-progress snapshot of the grand cathedral of Notre Dame, once situated on Monivong Boulevard. (Photos supplied)

F or Roman Catholics, this coming Easter Sunday will commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But 15 years ago, the day also marked the rebirth of their church in Cambodia. Lachlan Hastings takes a look back at the turbulent history of the Catholic Church.

On Easter Sunday in 1990, a group of Cambodian Catholics met in Phnom Penhís Chenla Theater to pray together publicly for the first time in 15 years.

Throughout the brutal repression of the Khmer Rouge and the uncertainty that followed, they had been forced to keep their faith a secret. Their churchís physical presence had long disappeared, for like Buddhism and Islam, Christianity was not allowed during the Democratic Kampuchea era.

All Cambodian Catholic priests, including Joseph Chmar Salas, the first Khmer Catholic bishop, and many members of Catholic religious orders and lay people were killed. Churches were razed and properties seized.

Most famously, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Phnom Penh ñ which could hold up to 10,000 people ñ was dynamited. The reinforced concrete blocks were reportedly smashed with hammers by cadres and the salvaged iron was extracted to make nails for the revolution, says Emile Destombes, now Bishop of Phnom Penh.

Today, Catholics in Cambodia number 25,000, and the church wields influence beyond the number of faithful through the dozen Catholic NGOs and two dozen Catholic societies and religious orders active in Cambodia.

In the beginningÖ

However, the resurrection of the Catholic Church in Cambodia since 1990 was not the first since the Portuguese brought their faith with them in the 16th century, writes Francois Ponchaud, in The Cathedral of the Rice Paddy, his history of the church in Cambodia. The author and historian has been an observer of religion in Cambodia since 1965 and was one of the last Westerners to leave after the Khmer Rouge reached Phnom Penh in 1975.

In 1555, a Portuguese Dominican called Gaspar da Cruz arrived at the Royal Court of Longvek, 40 kilometers to the north of present-day Phnom Penh, on the invitation of King Ang Chan I. Khmer kings continued welcoming Dominican and Franciscan missionaries to Cambodia, seemingly receptive to Christianity.

But there was also a political imperative. The kings were seeking support from the Catholic Portuguese and later the Spanish, in waging war against Siam (now Thailand) to the west. One Cambodian monarch, King Satha, told the Spanish he would even accept baptism if peace came to his kingdom. That peace did not come, and Longvek was sacked by Siamese troops in 1594.

In the 17th century many Catholics fleeing persecution in present-day Indonesia and Japan took refuge in Cambodia, but early attempts by Catholic missionaries to convert Khmers largely failed. Later, preachers confined their ministry in Cambodia to Portuguese traders and Vietnamese Catholics who fled persecution in their homeland in the mid-17th century.

A milestone was noted in 1658, when the Vatican charged three French missionaries of Les Missions Etrangères de Paris with establishing the Catholic Church in Asia, giving Bishop Pierre Lambert de la Motte responsibility for Cambodia. During the second half of the 18th century more efforts were made to convert Khmers to Catholicism.

But the Catholic Churchís fledgling presence was virtually annihilated in the mid-19th century as Cambodia struggled to survive domination by Siam in the west and Vietnam in the east. Hundreds of Vietnamese Catholics arrived in Cambodia from 1858 to 1862, fleeing persecution by Vietnamese Emperor Tu Duc, and by 1885 the majority of Cambodiaís Catholics were Vietnamese. Before the First World War, Ponchaud estimates that there were 36,000 Catholics in Cambodia: made up of 32,500 Vietnamese, 3,000 Khmers and 500 Chinese.

Construction of the Notre Dame Cathedral of Phnom Penh began in 1951, financed predominantly by the French government in reparation for Catholic churches destroyed during years of war. Locating the cathedral so close to Wat Phnom was, in retrospect, a mistake, says Ponchaud. But at the time the church was fearful of having its land appropriated amid continuing political instability and decided a bold move was necessary.

By 1957, the first Khmer Catholic priest was ordained. The congregation grew and by 1970, there were 61,000 Catholics in Cambodia, comprising 56,500 Vietnamese, 3,000 Khmers and 1,500 Chinese. In the same year, Ponchaud writes, approval was received from Rome to celebrate All Souls Day in September, to coincide with Pchum Ben, the Khmer festival of the dead. Keen to adapt to local ways, the church also considered moving Easter and Christmas to accommodate Buddhist celebrations.

The bitter civil war had its effects on the Catholic community, and between May and August of 1970, an estimated 40,000 Vietnamese Catholics left Cambodia for Vietnam, expelled in the wake of secular hatred stirred by ruling General Lon Nol.

Enter the KR

After Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975, the cathedral did not survive long. In destroying it in 1976, the Khmer Rouge accomplished a two-fold mission: on a practical level valuable building materials were salvaged, but its destruction was also a symbolic victory for the Khmer Rouge, who considered the cathedral a show of Vietnamese imperialism.

ìNow there is nothing. You cannot know what was there,î says Bishop Destombes.

But one impressive reminder does remain; the old Bishopís House. Modern Phnom Penh residents are more likely to know it as the headquarters of the Phnom Penh Municipal Government, but the fence in front of the three-story mansion still bears white crosses that predate the Khmer Rouge.

Despite the murder of Cambodian Catholic priests and the expulsion of foreign missionaries, Catholics met to worship in secret during the years of religious repression under Pol Pot. Consecrated Eucharistic bread, which Catholics believe is the body of Christ, was smuggled from Vietnam, often in film canisters, and distributed among the faithful. Catholics would meet in family groups and as a sign of unity with the Church some of them would kiss a cross that once hung around the neck of Khmer Catholic bishop Joseph Chmar Salas. The countryís first bishop died from exhaustion in Khmer Rouge custody at Taing Kauk in 1977, having returned from France in 1975 days before the fall of Phnom Penh.

Four years after the Vietnamese took control of Cambodia in 1979, French-born Yves Ramousse was given responsibility by the Vatican for all Khmer Catholics, inside and outside the country. Ramousse had been Apostolic Vicar of Phnom Penh from 1963 until 1976, finally returned in 1989 and was reunited with some of those who had keep their faith.

Although Cambodiaís 1989 constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, in June of that year the preaching of Christianity was forbidden by a decree of the Council of Ministers. But government approval was granted in 1990 for an Easter celebration.

Catholics living in Phnom Penh continued to gather privately until permission was granted to celebrate Christmas in the old seminary on National Road 5. Since receiving permission to worship freely, Cambodian Catholics and foreign missionaries have prioritized rebuilding, but not in a physical sense.

ìOur priority was not to build a church but form a community,î says Bishop Destombes.

The old seminary was returned to the church by the government in 1992 and is now the hub of Phnom Penhís Catholic community, known as Saint Josephís Parish. In 1995, the Church ordained its first Khmer priest since the murder of its Cambodian clergy by the Khmer Rouge and in 2001 a further four priests were ordained.

Adapting to a Buddhist country

Modern Catholicism has made efforts to fit into the Khmer culture.

On the walls of one Catholic Church of Phnom Penh on National Road 5, Christ is depicted as a Khmer citizen and Biblical scenes are painted in the style of traditional pagoda murals telling the Buddhaís life story. Members of the congregation sit on mats on the floor in the ìmermaidî position of temple reverence rather than standing, sitting, or kneeling, and hymns are set to traditional Khmer melodies.

But one of the toughest cultural dilemmas for Catholics in Cambodia is that of language: should services be held in the Khmer, or in the tongue of the majority of its members, Vietnamese?

From 1964, some Cambodian parishes began celebrating the entire mass in Khmer, after the Second Vatican Council recommended the use of ìvernacularî languages instead of Latin, and this practice was extended to all Cambodian congregations in 1966.

But the question of language goes beyond the realms of religion and linguistics, and must address the touchy subject of Vietnamese-Khmer relations. A report issued in 2002 by Kike Figaredo, Apostolic Prefect of Battambang, says strategies are being put in place to integrate Catholic Vietnamese communities on the Tonle Sap River into the Church.

ìGiven the long-standing tensions between the Cambodian and Vietnamese peoples, the task of integrating them in to the Church is a delicate one,î says the report. ìTo assist their integration, we have started literacy classes for both adults and children of these communities, in both Cambodian and Vietnamese languages.î

Two thirds of Catholics in the Kingdom are Vietnamese, many of whom live in fishing villages along the Mekong River. Most of the other third are Khmer. Today, in many predominantly Vietnamese congregations readings from the Bible and the homily, or sermon, are also given in Vietnamese.

Taking the church forward

The Vatican today divides Cambodia into three administrative regions: Battambang, Kampong Cham and Phnom Penh. French-born Bishop Destombes administers Phnom Penh, Spanish-born Kike Figaredo is Apostolic Prefect of Battambang and Indian-born Antonysamy Susairaj is Apostolic Prefect of Kampong Cham.

There are currently seven Cambodian men studying to be priests, and the Church hopes to further increase its ranks of local clergy, but foreign members of religious orders have long been pivotal in both the Churchís charity work and ministry.

One of them, Denise Coghlan from the Sisters of Mercy order made famous by Mother Teresa, was the first foreign Catholic religious sister to return to Cambodia after the withdrawal of the Vietnamese in 1989, arriving in June 1990. Since early 1992 Coghlan, who was principal of the first girls high school in Papua New Guinea, has represented the Catholic NGO, Jesuit Service Cambodia (JSC). The Jesuits have long been active in Cambodia. Fernando Mendez Pinto, a Portuguese adventurer who became a Jesuit, reportedly visited Cambodia en-route to Japan in 1554, before the arrival of Gaspar da Cruz. Coghlan says JSCís mission, and that of the church, is ìto all peoples of Cambodia, not just Christiansî.

Catholic religious orders and organizations operate schools for the disabled, care for sufferers of HIV/AIDS, serve the poor and the sick, and advocate for refugees.

Coghlan believes dialogue between Buddhists, Muslims and Cambodiaís Christians is a step forward for peace.

ìThe real mission of the church here is to find ways that the Buddhist community and the Christian community can work together to promote the dignity of each human person and create a climate of justice,î says Coghlan.

Bishop Destombes believes this goal is achievable, saying he has a good relationship with Tep Vong and Bou Kry, the Supreme Patriarchs of Cambodiaís two main Buddhist sects.

The reputation of Christians in Cambodia has undoubtedly been damaged by ìfood for faithî proselytizing scandals that occurred in the refugee camps on the Thai border during the 1980s and continue in different forms today amongst evangelical denominations, but through charity work and treading delicately in this Buddhist country, Catholics hope to regain some of that lost credibility.

ìI insist he who wants to be Catholic must [study the Churchís teachings] for three years, every week,î Destombes says. ìWe believe that only God can convert.î

Francois Ponchaud respects zeal but distances the church from heavy-handed preaching and disdain for Buddhism. In an attempt to provoke thought and emphasize similarities rather than differences, Ponchaud has written a book comparing Jesus and Buddha.

ìBuddha is like Moses, not my savior but a very good person,î says Ponchaud. ìSo I [was ashamed] when I saw many preachers preach against Buddhism. For me it is a sinÖ a big sin to look down on Buddhist culture.î

Destombes agrees.

ìWhen we help anybody, we donít ask their religion. If they are [a] Buddhist [and] they are happy, I am happy. For me, the meaning of the Gospel is to respect the beliefs of everyone.î

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