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Cambodian Catholics begin rebuilding church.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- "After the Elmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh in 1975, one of the tasks they undertook in the name of reconstruction," said Kri Beng Hong, vice mayor of Phnom Penh, sitting in his municipal office, "was to invite back 400 Khmer intellectuals and students living in France to help |rebuild' the country.

"The first assignment given these returning Khmers was to demolish the Phnom Penh Cathedral. Then they bad to transport the nibble to a river 12 miles southeast of Phnom Penh, to build a dike.

"After they completed their work, many were thanked by the Khmer Rouge for their efforts by being taken over to where the Phnom Penh TV broadcast antenna is -- and shot."

Phnom Penh Cathedral, a soaring, monumental edifice built during the French colonial period, was financed primarily by France as part of war reparations for churches destroyed during the Indochina war. It had stood as a proud symbol of the tiny Catholic community in Cambodia, until the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975.

European ties

Compared with Buddhism, which dates to the seventh century, the Catholic church is a relative newcomer to Cambodia (the Christian era began around 1555, after Portuguese Dominican Gaspar de Cruz arrived on Cambodian shores).

With the possible exception of the 100-year French colonial era and, most recently, the Sihanouk period of 1953-70, the history of the church has been marked by nearly constant struggle against tremendous instability.

Bishop Yves Ramousse, appointed apostolic vicar to Cambodia, puts it this way: "The history of the church in Cambodia is that of this kingdom [Cambodia]: wedged, dismembered, enduring the misfortunes of war, the displacements of population, confronted with the compromises of occupations -- a real biblical climate."

Catholicism barely survived the ravages of recent wars, especially the Khmer Rouge period, and was nearly eradicated in Cambodia. But as one believer noted, "I kept the church alive in my heart."

The situation has changed during the early years of the current regime. "Christianity was forbidden, but small groups of Khmers met openly to practice their faith because the Vietnamese-installed government had at least one spy for every 10 people," said Father D'Estombe, 58, a member of French Caritas International, the Catholic relief organization that works with poor and unskilled Khmers.

New beginnings

There are more than 30 priests in Cambodia today, but all are officially designated social workers and are attached to international agencies. They are, however, allowed to perform the sacraments of the church.

There are no Khmer priests or bishops in Cambodia and only one Vietnamese priest. The former Khmer bishops either were killed by the Khmer Rouge or died of starvation along with five other Khmer priests.

Cambodia, which used to have three dioceses, has been reduced from more than 30 churches to one functioning Catholic parish.

Located just north of the Chruy Chang Var bridge over the Tonle Sap River, destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, the sole existent church occupies the upper floor of a neatly kept colonial-era building on the grounds of a former seminary.

Each Sunday, the church is packed during the morning and afternoon Masses. The early one being primarily for the Khmer congregation, the later Mass for resident Vietnamese Catholics.

Looking ahead

The church appears to have accepted the challenge to rebuild itself

Various international Catholic organizations along with the Khmer and Khmer/Vietnamese Catholics recently participated in the first National Assembly of Catholic Committee's conference during a three-day period at the Phnom Penh church.

"I welcomed them (80 representatives) and told them why we asked them to come to this meeting," said Father D'Estombe. "We wanted to discuss together and exchange ideas about what the church must do in the future (in Cambodia) and how.

"There were only two objectives of the conference. First, we wanted to gather information and experience from all the representatives. And, secondly, to discuss four important dimensions of the church to make it a real church that signals the love of God for all the people in Cambodia."

During the Pol Pot period, all religions were prohibited. Like many Marxist-Leninist, groups the Khmer Rouge believed that religion was superstition -- the "opiate of the masses" -- and would distract their followers from blind obedience to the Khmer Rouge's revolutionary ideology and organizational structure or Angka.

But, in the case of Catholicism, the Khmer Rouge felt it was brought into Cambodia by foreigners, especially the Vietnamese, Cambodia's sworn historical and modern-day enemy, and thus it had to be destroyed.

In late 1978, the Khmer Rouge were nearly driven out of Cambodia by the invading Vietnamese army, who then set up the current State of Cambodia government, SOC, a communist regime that has ruled Cambodia to the current day.

After 14 years of suffering a U.S.-led world embargo, being cut off from Soviet aid and recognizing the world trend toward democracy, the SOC government stopped identifying itself as a communist administration and began a gradual liberalization policy, including limited foreign investment.

"In April 1990, the (SOC) government recognized the Christian religion and allowed it to be practiced," said D'Estombe, who has been working in Cambodia most of his adult life. He was expelled to the Thai border in 1975 along with other foreigners held in the French embassy in Phnom Penh.

"But they asked for Christians to give them money, tell their professions and address and make a report every week about their activities and meetings," he said. "This continued until the United Nations Advance Mission in Cambodia (UNAMIC) arrived in 1991.

"Now the State of Cambodia authorities don't interfere with our activities, but we don't know if they still have spies in our groups."

As part of its efforts to rebuild itself, the church must confront the increasingly important challenge of resolving the split between the Khmer and Khmer/Vietnamese Catholics. The French Catholic groups are working almost exclusively with the Khmers to prevent a repeat of earlier schisms.

Meanwhile, the Maryknoll staff, who's principal mission is to work with the handicapped, especially those suffering war injuries, and to provide health care, is helping meet the needs of the Khmer/Vietnamese.

"It used to be a very colonial church," said Father John Barth, a Maryknoll priest who's been helping marginalized and handicapped Khmers in Cambodia since 1991. "If you asked local Khmer, they would equate being Catholic with being Vietnamese. Now we want to give the ethnic Khmer Catholic church a chance to blossom."

The church is very small in Cambodia, but the need to work out problems between the two cultures reflects the larger issue the new government must face: What to do about the Vietnamese people in Cambodia?

Although they are a minority, the Vietnamese compose more than 1 million people in Cambodia, out of a population of 8 million.

But within the church the problem of numbers is exacerbated by the opposite ratio: There are a disproportionate number of practicing Vietnamese Catholics (15,000) to Khmers (3,500) in the overall population.

"The Viets are very aggressive by just being themselves," Barth said, "and would virtually take over the church activities. We all want to build up the local church. The question is, what is the local church?"

The recent National Assembly of Catholic Committee's conference was seen as taking the essential, but uncertain, first steps in resolving these important issues.

"Small groups were organized to discuss the four important dimensions which define the church" D'Estombe said "Liturgy was discussed, especially the use of the Khmer language in prayer, songs, gestures and attitudes and the transmission of the faith through catechism.

"The Viets are strong, and the Khmer people think they will be repressed by them. So we say that we have to live together and that we need each other.

"The Viets recognize they are in Cambodia and must speak Khmer and follow Khmer traditions.

"What was impressive about the conference was the good will of the Khmer people and their desire to move forward."
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Author:Gillotte, Tony
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:May 14, 1993
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