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Heretics and heritage: The destruction of the Catholic church in Phnom Penh 1975-1979

Heretics and heritage: The destruction of the Catholic church in Phnom Penh 1975-1979

Fortunately for Phnom Penh the anti-urbanism of the Khmer Rouge did not manifest itself in the wanton destruction of the city's architectural heritage.

Despite open contempt for the Buddhist sangha and the monarchy, the palace and the temples were left largely untouched. Symbols of capitalism and Western imperialism, such as the central market, the American Embassy, the old French administrative buildings and even Caltex signage survived, with most damage being from neglect rather than malice.

An exception to this was the Catholic Church, which experienced the destruction of nearly all places of worship. The most significant of these and by far the largest was the Cathedral. Built between 1951 and 1962 from plans prepared by Bishop Hergott, it was an immense build-

ing. The foundations alone requiring 328 piles of reinforced concrete each 13 metres long, with the two main towers standing 60 metres high. Stained glass windows were imported from Belgium and its five bronze bells from the Paccard foundry at Annecy in France.

Situated on Monivong Boulevard between the Hotel Le Royal and what was then the Lycee Descartes, the cathedral's location alone was enough to be seen by some as antagonistic to Buddhist sensibilities.

Despite a missionary presence in Cambodia since the sixteenth century conversion rates among the Khmer were minimal. Over 90 percent of converts were of Vietnamese origin, many of whom were descendents of Catholic Vietnamese that had fled Vietnam during the first half of the nineteenth century. In fact the Khmer colloquial term for Vietnamese and Christians was, and still is, Ong Co, a Vietnamese phrase meaning "grandfather", used by the Vietnamese for Catholic missionaries.

The actual decision to destroy the cathedral first appears in notes from a meeting of the CPK Central Committee that took place in March 1976. Yet it is likely that the motivating factor had less to do with destroying symbols of French imperialism or even of religion per se, than it was due to the close association of the Church with the Vietnamese.

According to Ong Thong Hoeung, a returned intellectual employed at the destruction site, "thousands" of people worked on the demolition. The main pillars of the cathedral were dynamited and for several days the city was covered in white dust. The steel used in the reinforced concrete was extracted by hand to supply the city's small smelting works. The concrete blocks were used to reinforce and extend Phnom Penh's outer dyke - a defensive embankment constructed on the city's outskirts under the Republic. Nevertheless, by 1979 all evidence of the cathedral's existence had been eradicated.

The destruction of the Church, however, did not stop at the new cathedral. Perhaps viewed historically as 'Trojan horses' for Vietnamese hegemony, Phnom Penh's other churches were also targeted. The Preah Meada church, commonly known as the church of 'Hoaland', was Phnom Penh's first cathedral, located in Russey Keo district just north of the Chrui Changvar Bridge. Photographs show a church that would have looked as much at home in rural France as it would on an English village green. All that survives today is a single gate-pillar inscribed with the initials "ME", Mission Etrangers, and a small section of the front wall. Another nearby church has disappeared completely.

On the other side of the Tonle Sap lay the church of Chrui Changvar. This ornate, Portuguese-style church was another victim of Khmer Rouge xenophobia. Built in the mid-19th century, it too was demolished under Democratic Kampuchea. Adjacent to this church was the Carmelite Chapel and the nun's residence, both of which have survived and now house an orphanage.

Another church of interest was that associated with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart and located within the grounds of the École Miche. The school, named after a 19th-century bishop who was an early advocate for the establishment of French colonial rule, was the same school which, according to historian David Chandler, Pol Pot attended between 1936 and 1942. Although the church is no longer there, the school still exists and is now occupied by Norton University. The back of the school faces patrons on the veranda of another well-known Phnom Penh institution, that of Sharkey Bar.

Without doubt the destruction of Catholic Churches was thorough and systematic, but it was virtually the only symbolic act of architectural vandalism to occur in Phnom Penh between 1975 and 1978. An exception to this would be the removal of the monument to the

dead, a bronze statue commemorating the country's sacrifices during the first world war, and that of the French cemetery, both of which were located opposite the French embassy.

Certainly, many thousands of homes located on the city's western suburbs - many of which sprung up during the 1970-1975 war - were dismantled so that materials could be used in other constructions. In particular, corrugated iron roofs were stripped to supply fencing for secured sections of the city, notably around Toul Sleng, Chamcar Mon and behind the Royal Palace. As for the blowing-up of the National Bank, it now seems highly unlikely that this was the result of orders from the senior leadership. What is more likely in this case is either an act of criminal opportunism perpetrated by renegade elements of the Khmer Rouge or by remnants of the army of the Khmer Republic.


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