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Catholic church, decimated by war, tries to rebound

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Catholic church, a tiny minority in this country but a significant player in the delivery of human services, suffered severely under the Khmer Rouge regime and is now working persistently, if slowly, to help rebuild.

The church in Cambodia has always been small. In 1970, after more than 400 years of mission activities, Cambodian Catholics numbered 62,000. Forty-four priests served the community with several hundred nuns and a large congregation of brothers.

Two Catholic schools in the capital -- premier institutions then attended by elites -- had more than 3,000 students between them. But the war years and the genocidal campaign against free thought have taken a toll on the Catholic church, as well as other institutions in Cambodia. Today the church in Cambodia numbers about 10,000. It has no Khmer priests, nuns or brothers. The elite schools are all gone, as are the smaller schools, the hospitals and the churches.

Priests and nuns from outside the country now work on the most basic level in the villages, just trying to reconstruct a bit of trust and visibility for the church.

Kbal Tomnup is a village on the southwest outskirts of Phnom Penh. The houses are built on tall stilts, because for about half the year the area is a lake two- to three-meters deep. Boats shuttle people back and forth between the houses, dry land and their crops.

The village development association, a project assisted by the Catholic development aid organization, Caritas Cambodia, manages a credit program that helps farmers finance the purchase of seed, fertilizer and other agricultural needs. It also manages a social assistance fund for emergencies.

Fear of group activities

Sok Sakhorn, 45, a Caritas Cambodia field worker, has been visiting Kbal Tomnup since 1994 when the houses were small, precariously built and widely scattered. People were quiet and kept to themselves. They lived in the same area but were not a community. They didn’t like to work together, Sok said. They had no desire to form any kind of an association. Another Caritas field worker, Samol Nunth, said forced communal living under the Khmer Rouge made people fearful of organized group activities. “After that time, people preferred to eat alone and work alone,” Samol said.

Sok said, “We had to spend a long time building trust.” It took two years before an association could form but it worked.

Fr. Verachai Sripramong, a member of the Thai Mission Society, remembered how afraid people were in 1993 when he arrived in Cambodia. Newly ordained and on his first posting, he would visit villages where he knew Catholics lived, but when he called people together few if any would come. It took quite awhile before they were willing to come together, he said.

Later people explained to him that in the past being Catholic was enough to get a person killed, so they trusted only their closest circle of friends and family. “Little by little, we build the parish. I stay with the people, and they feel happy to have a priest,” he said.

Today, Verachai works at the Catholic parish in northern Phnom Penh and has care of three village communities, about 1,000 families in all.

Even with his decades of mission experience in Cambodia and in Brazil, Bishop Émile Destombes of the Paris Foreign Missions had as much trouble meeting Khmer Catholics as the young priest, Verachai. “In the beginning it was difficult. Because for 15 to 20 years they didn’t have the possibility to speak freely, they had to learn how to express themselves again,” Destombes said.

He came to Cambodia in the 1960s, and the Khmer Rouge expelled him with all foreigners in 1975. He returned in 1989; it was still illegal to function as a priest, so he first worked as a director of an international relief agency.

“Yes, people are angry,” the bishop said. “They are angry with sad feelings about the past.” They do not dwell on their anger, he said, because most are fighting day-to-day just to survive, as they have over much of the last 30 years. The difference today is “now they have the possibility to live,” Destombes said.

“The first aim of the Catholic church in Cambodia is to rebuild the church. For it was almost destroyed,” said Fr. François Ponchaud, a Paris Foreign Mission priest first posted to Cambodia in the 1960s and expelled in 1975. From France he visited exiled Cambodians in Europe, Canada, Australia, the United States and refugee camps in Thailand until he could return in 1993.

Church people in Cambodia talk a lot about rebuilding, but they very clearly do not mean bricks and mortar. As soon as Destombes and his fellow Bishop Yves Ramousse, also of the Paris Foreign Missions, took up pastoral duties, they declared a moratorium on construction that has lasted nearly a decade and apparently will remain in place indefinitely.

Destombes said this is a request of the Cambodian Catholics themselves. He said they told him they don’t want a church like before.

“Before the church had a big face in society. A big cathedral, big churches, schools, institutions for formation. They said, ‘No, the most important thing is not to build -- the most important thing is to build the communities.’ For me it was very good,” he said. “It is true the church is not a building. It is the community of believers or the witnesses.”

Instead of building, the missionaries set about establishing small Christian communities. Today about 50 formal communities have been formed in the country’s three dioceses. Half the communities are Cambodian and half ethnic Vietnamese. Early on, each community was asked to form three committees: worship, catechism and charities. All who serve are volunteers. These committees have full responsibility for planning community liturgies, teaching community members and giving material assistance to the needy within the community area.

Because they are Christians

“Now we are building a church without priests,” Ponchaud said. “The people gather together, not because there is a priest, but because they are Christians and they share their faith. They speak together, they have a good relationship together. It is an interesting way, for now and for the future.” For a few years, as church administration was getting re-established, national synods were held twice a year. In recent years, they have become annual events, but national committees on worship, charities and catechists still meet frequently.

Synods are open to all, not just the church and community leadership. “It is very important for the people to know each other and to share their experiences and the difficulties and the way to be witnesses in Cambodia,” Destombes said.

He also emphasized that the synods are for sharing, not instructions. “It is very good, because during the synod people speak and express their feelings and difficulties and their hopes. They help each other to find the way to be witnesses of the gospel.” Formation is at the top of the church’s priority list.

“When I came back, so many people would say to me, ‘We are Christians,’ especially the youth,” Destombes said. “But when I asked them who is Jesus Christ, they didn’t know. They had kept the faith but really ... well, they didn’t know anything about the faith or about witness. They had good will and wanted to learn.”

Ponchaud’s commitment is to formation. “My personal work is to train leaders. I teach the seminarians. I train many, many catechists -- Cambodian and Vietnamese -- more than 100 in four years.”

He also directs the catechetical center where he and a small staff produce scripture commentaries in Khmer, a wide assortment of catechetical material including print and video. Because 63 percent of the population is illiterate, the center employs artists to put formation lessons into picture format.

“The catechists, they are the missionaries more than me,” Ponchaud said, which is why the priest works so hard to get them materials they can use, most importantly the Bible and commentaries in their language. Ponchaud himself completed the first Khmer translation of the New Testament in Paris in the early 1980s.

Six Cambodian men are studying for the priesthood. Four in their late 20s to early 40s began studies in 1992 and 1993. Destombes said they will be ordained within the next two years. Two more young men, 28 and 20 years old, just joined seminary formation.

A small group of women interested in religious life have been meeting twice a year for encouragement and support. The bishop hopes to begin a novitiate for women in about two years. “The church is small, so we cannot hope for too many vocations,” he said. “We are rebuilding from nothing. We are working slowly.”

Despite the focus on small communities and formation, they are not building an inward-looking church. The whole point of formation, Destombes said, is to “help people take responsibility to know about our mission inside the country, not only inside the church but also for the society. To understand that we are not Catholics for our own duty but we are Catholics to become witnesses for the people.”

Ponchaud said, “We train them [catechists] to be in touch with the poorest people. … This is the first condition to be Christian.” Yet, he said, this attitude “is very different from the mainstream of society who only want money.” Reflecting on his early years in the country, Ponchaud said, “These are a different people [today]. Before, they were a very kind people. Now it is very rough. So much corruption. … Before, the people were concerned with Buddhist values, for example, family values. Now nobody is concerned. The U.S. dollar is king.”

He told of a mother with nine children and a newborn he was helping with food and milk. One day he learned the mother had sold her baby for $50 and her eldest daughter for $300. “Before, I never saw such a thing. This family has lost Cambodian values. There is no love anymore. There is a big change in the mentality of the people. Now they only want money.”

The first mission of the church in Cambodia is reconciliation, Destombes said. “Reconciliation inside the church, too.” One change for the better since 1975, the bishop said, is church relations with Buddhists. “The Catholics are living with the Buddhist people very well. The dialogue of life is very good now. They had to live together [when] nobody had freedom. They suffered together, so there was no tension between Buddhists and Catholics.

“Every day, we are thinking about dialogue. We are not here to convert others. Only God, the spirit of God can convert people. We have to be witnesses and dialog together.” Unity, Destombes said, is the greatest gift for Cambodia. “We need the unity of each other ... We are suffering. We all have difficulties in life, but we cannot hope for help from the government or from the rich people. We have to help together to help each other for a better future.

“We have hope because now people are taking responsibility and want to be witnesses. We have hope the peace will endure. Without hope it is not possible to live here. We have hope because we have faith in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit present in Cambodia -- not just in the church -- in Cambodia.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000