Cambodian Catholics rediscover identity at special synod

The agony of the Pol Pot years which were survived by only 1000 of Cambodia's Catholics has enabled the Church to become a truly Khmer community, Fr Tonlop Sophal Pierre, a local priest, has told a Cambodian synod.

UCA News reports that the history and state of the Cambodian church were discussed at a synod on "The Word of God Guiding Church History." The special national meeting held last month at Joseph's Church in Phnom Penh, brought together 130 priests, nuns and lay leaders.

One participant, Chiv Sok Noeun, a recently baptised 29-year-old Catholic said, "I thought the Catholic Church was built in the 1990s or maybe during the time Cambodia was a French protectorate (1887-1953)."

Mr Sok Noeun said it now is clear to him that the Church in Cambodia actually began 450 years ago. The synod also taught him that many people have died for their faith in Cambodia, and he promised to share what he learned with fellow Catholics back home in Kompong Cham.

Bishop Yves Ramousse, the retired vicar apostolic of Phnom Penh, told the delegates that the local Church had been destroyed in the political strife of the 1970s, and few Catholics and no native clergy or Religious survived.

However, the 78-year-old bishop, a member of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, also pointed out that though Church buildings were destroyed, this did not mean "there was no Catholic community."

As many as two million Cambodians died from forced labour, starvation, lack of medical attention and extrajudicial killings during the rule of Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge, from 1975 until Vietnamese troops forced it from power in 1979. The regime tried to wipe out all traces of the Church and to suppress other religions, including Buddhism, now Cambodia's state religion.

Church sources claim that Cambodia had 65,000 Catholics in 1970, but only 1,000 or so Cambodian Catholics were still alive when Pol Pot's regime collapsed.

Cambodia restored religious freedom in 1991, and missioners began to return. Their first effort was to search marketplaces to see if any of the Catholics they knew had survived.

Fr Tonlop Sophal Pierre, a Khmer priest, told synod participants that though people "suffered and were put to death," that agony has helped the Church in Cambodia become a truly Khmer community. In 1955, only 3,000 of 126,000 Catholics in the country were Khmer. Today, he said, there are 11,253 families in 84 Catholic communities across the country.

Today, according to Church statistics, 19,000 of Cambodia's 12 million people are Catholics. Only five of the 50 priests are native Khmer.

Them Thun, a 29-year-old youth leader who belongs to the St Vincent de Paul Society, said he learned much from hearing about the early missionaries. He said this would help his faith grow and motivate him to continue to love his fellow villagers.

The local Church has conducted synods since 1991, two years after missionaries began to return. Two synods were organised each year from 1992 to 1998, but just once a year from 1999. Each time, the synod has tried to generate new dynamism in a Church that virtually disappeared from 1975 until 1989.

Catholics Learn About The Troubled History Of The Church In Cambodia (UCA News 31/7/06)

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Catholic Church in Cambodia

1 Aug 2006