Once a source of suffering and alienation, Ly Sovanna's Catholicism now provides a firm foundation for honouring his convictions and appreciating his Buddhist heritage
Ly Sovanna and his family.
Ly Sovanna is a soft-spoken family man. He was baptised three years ago and chose the Christian name Jean-Baptiste.
"During my three years of study in catechism, I liked him because he was living [in the same way] as the poor. He was very humble and always on the way of God," he said, referring to Saint John the Baptist.
This year, Ly Sovanna's Christmas celebration will reflect the uncomplicated nature of his faith: "No big celebration, just something simple".
At his Phnom Penh home, Ly Sovanna celebrates by putting up two small Christmas trees with a nativity scene he built himself from simple materials.
Ly Sovanna says that when he did not have small figures to place in his homemade stable, he decided to use sculptures of the holy family he purchased in Vietnam.
In the opposite corner of the room stands his father-in-law's Buddha statute. In this family, Catholics and Buddhists live together and celebrate together.
A family affair
On Christmas Eve, three families will be seathed around Ly Sovanna's family table: Ly Sovanna with his wife and son, his parents-in-law and his brother-in-law's family. The dinner menu will feature a special Khmer soup. After dinner, the young children - his son and his niece - will receive presents. As usual, the adults will wait for the Khmer New Year to get their gifts.
"The gift is a symbol. It allows us to think about the love we share and the love we receive. The main thing is not the gift but the heart," Ly Sovanna said.
That's why during the Advent season (four weeks before Christmas), the Catholic community, of which Ly Sovanna is a member, organises donations for the poor, the sick and the incarcerated.
The Christmas season is important for Ly Sovanna, as it gives him the opportunity to think intensely about his religion, which he describes as "the relation between God and humans, who have to be patient and aware of their path, the faith, the love of God, the return of the Christ someday, the relations inside the community..."
The Christmas Mass, where several hundred faithful will meet at Phnom Penh's Boeung Tompoung church, will be the highlight of the festive season for both Ly Sovanna and his wife.
While the celebration will be a bit different from the one the family used to attend in their beloved Kampong Thom province, where Ly Sovanna used to play Joseph in the church play and where the family played traditional Khmer games and sang Christmas songs, the spirit will remain the same.
[the gift] allows us to think about the love we share. the main thing is not the gift but the heart.
Ly Sovanna does not mind the fact that many non-Christian people celebrate Christmas, nor the increasing commercialism associated with the season.
"[Christmas] is good for joy and wishing friendship. We have to be open. But we all have to be careful with the materialism and to limit it.
And I disagree with the students asking to celebrate [Christmas] during class. They can give presents after school [or] during their free time.
It is not good to use [Christmas] as a pretext to stop working at school. But it is great to see people love each other."
This kindness is something Ly Sovanna says he developed when he suffered the contempt of villagers while living in the province. They called him "the Jesus" and said he was not Khmer because he abandoned Buddhism and his Cambodian culture.
"My father was a monk, and he taught the monks at the pagoda. He had a very close and respectful relationship with his brother, who was converted to Catholicism before Pol Pot's regime. Before my father died, he advised me to join my uncle's family. I have never forgotten my culture. I still respect the monks. I still respect my family. My heart and my blood are Cambodian," Ly Sovanna said.
As if to prove the point, Ly Sovanna brings out a wooden statue of the virgin Mary with her child Jesus. She wears a sarong, a farmer's shirt and a krama. And they both stand on a lotus flower.