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Cambodia, The Catholic Church in


The Kingdom of Cambodia (Kampuchea), located in southeast Asia, is bound on the north and west by Thailand, on the northeast by Laos, on the east by Vietnam, and on the southwest by the Gulf of Thailand. Mountainous near its northern border as well as in the southwest, Cambodia falls to level terrain, and the country is traversed by the Mekong River that runs south to empty into the Gulf. Heavily jungled over much of its area, Cambodia has a tropical climate that brings monsoons during a rainy season lasting from May to November. Agricultural products include rice, corn, rubber, tobacco and sugar, while natural resources consist of timber, gemstones, manganese, phosphates and iron ore.

Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1863 as part of French Indochina. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1946, an autonomous state in the French Union in 1949, and fully independent in 1953. In 1975 a communist government took over the country, prompting an invasion by Vietnam that resulted in 13 years of war. The

UN sponsored elections in 1993. The majority of Cambodians are ethnic Khmers, although Vietnamese, Chinese, Thais and Europeans constitute minority populations. Only 35 percent of the population was considered literate in 2000.

Early History. Although Fernando Mendez Pinto, a Jesuit, visited Cambodia in 1554, the first attempt at evangelization was by the Dominican Gaspar da Cruz in 1555. During the same period, Portuguese Dominicans and Franciscans came from Malacca; tragically, one of them, Silvestro de Azevedo, OP, was put to death in 1576. Jesuits and priests from Goa, India, also labored in the area. >From the Philippines came two Spanish Dominicans, one of whom, Father Bastide, was slain in 1588, reflecting the lack of lasting success of these early evangelical efforts. When Louis Chevreul, a priest of the paris foreign mission society (MEP), arrived in 1665, he found the Portuguese ecclesiastical "governor" Paul d'Acosta at Colompé (Phnom Penh), where he was caring for 400 Portuguese who had been driven from Makassar by the Dutch. Across the river was a group of 600 refugees from Cochin China (Vietnam), 50 of whom were Christians. Chevreul also encountered Charles Della Rocca, SJ, at Udong, where Della Rocca was occupied with 100 Portuguese and a village of 500 or 600 Vietnamese. In 1670 Chevreul was seized by a Portuguese commander, imprisoned at Macau on charges of violating Portugal's rights of padroado (see patronato real), tried by the Inquisition of Goa, and finally released. Bishop Louis Laneau, MEP, the first vicar apostolic of Siam (167396) and administrator general of the missions in Indochina, sent one MEP to Cambodia in 1680 and two more in 1682. All three suffered greatly because of intrigues and wars, and departed for Cochin China or Siam in 1685.

For two centuries, missionary efforts focused on the Portuguese and Vietnamese. Nicholas Levasseur, MEP, was the first to specialize in the apostolate to the Cambodians, or Khmers. Between 1768 and his death in 1777 he translated into Khmer a catechism and various books. Unfortunately he had no successors. By 1842 Cambodia had only 222 Catholics and four churches. Attached to

the Vicariate Apostolic of Cochin China in 1658, Cambodia, along with part of Laos, became the Vicariate of Cambodia (1850), which then numbered 600 Catholics. The French, who had established themselves in Cochin China in 1859, extended their protectorate to Cambodia in 1863. In 1865 the Vicariate of Cambodia gained jurisdiction over eight "provinces" of Vietnam, which then had 5,000 Christians. Thenceforth mission activity centered around these eight "provinces," or on persons who were attracted to Cambodia from Cochin China by commerce and by the vast rice fields, whose value increased under the French protectorate. The name of the vicariate was changed in 1924 to Phnom Penh. On Nov. 9, 1953 Cambodia gained its independence from France and became a constitutional monarchy. Two years later the eight Vietnamese "provinces" were separated to form the Vicariate of Cantho, and the territorial limits of Phnom Penh were made coterminous with those of the kingdom of Cambodia. In 1968, two new apostolic prefectures were created: Battambang and Kompong-Cham. Tep Im Sotha was appointed the Apostolic Prefect of Battam-bang, becoming the first ethnic Khmer to occupy that position.

Persecutions. For the greater part of the 20th century, most of the Catholics in Cambodia were Vietnamese, many of them descendants of Vietnamese Catholics who had fled Vietnam during the anti-Catholic persecutions of the 1850s and 1860s. By 1970, of the approximately 61,000 Catholics in Cambodia, about 56,000 were ethnic Vietnamese, 3,000 were Khmers and 1,500 were Chinese. Ministering to the pastoral needs of these Catholics were 65 priests (45 French missionaries, 15 ethnic Vietnamese and 5 ethnic Khmers). When General Lon Nol

seized power on March 18, 1970 and established a military dictatorship in Cambodia, among other things he instigated a campaign to expel all ethnic Vietnamese from Cambodia. Cambodian Catholics of Vietnamese descent found themselves the target of violent attacks instigated by the military junta. From May to August 1970, more than 40,000 Cambodian Catholics of Vietnamese origin, lay and clergy alike, were forcibly deported to Vietnam. In one stroke, the Cambodian Catholic Church lost more than two-thirds of its faithful.

Life for the remaining Cambodian Catholics worsened after the collapse of the military junta of Lon Nol and the subsequent rise to power of the communist Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot on April 17, 1975. Two days before, on April 15, 1975, Joseph Chhmar Salas became the first ethnic Khmer bishop when he was ordained coadjutor bishop for the Vicariate Apostolic of Phnom Penh by the Vicar Apostolic, Mgr. Yves-Georges-René Ramousse, MEP, who foresaw the impending expulsion of all foreign missionaries and sought to provide the Cambodian Catholic Church with local leadership. On April 30, 1975, all foreigners, including Mgr. Ramousse and other foreign missionaries, were expelled, the Catholic Cathedral in Phnom Penh was completely razed to the ground, and Bishop Chhmar Salas was arrested and deported to Taing Kauk, where he died from disease and starvation in 1976.

The Cambodian Catholic Church suffered greatly during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. In addition to the confiscation of all its assets, the wholesale destruction of its churches, schools and hospitals, and the expulsion of all foreign missionaries, all of the indigenous clergy and religious who remained behind were rounded up, tortured and either executed (as was the case with the monks of the Benedictine Monastery at Kep in Kampot Province, and Mgr. Tep Im Sotha) or forced into labor camps, where they later died from disease and hunger (as was the case with Bishop Chhmar Salas, and many local clergy and religious).

In the name of collective national purification and reconstruction, the Khmer Rouge implemented a massive program of radical social transformation and rewriting of Cambodia's history, abolishing all religions, money, commerce, markets and private property ownership. The country was reorganized as a single agricultural collective, with the entire Cambodian population as its labor force. The scale of human suffering was immense: between two and four million Cambodians (more than 25 percent of the total population) perished from torture, execution, forced labor, or starvation.

The Khmer Rouge regime ended when Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia on January 7, 1979, but the situation remained desperate for the Cambodian Catholic Church under the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin regime from 1979 to 1990, which suppressed all forms of religious practices and prohibited all efforts to rebuild the battered Church. During these dark years, the small pockets of Cambodian Catholics who survived clung stead-fastly to their faith, meeting secretly for prayer services. Living in exile, the Vicar Apostolic of Phnom Penh, Mgr. Ramousse directed the Holy See's outreach programs to Cambodian refugees throughout the world before returning to Cambodia in May 1989, after a 14-year absence. He was followed in 1990 by another French missionary, Emile Destombes, MEP, who celebrated the first Easter Mass in public since 1975. As a result of their endeavors, on April 7, 1990, the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Party issued a statement to the National Council of the Front of Solidarity, authorizing "a place of worship for the Christian religion." Following this development, the Cambodian Catholic Church received permission to hold public liturgies and rebuild its churches. Foreign missionaries and representatives of religious communities were also allowed to return and reestablish their presence in Cambodia.

Renaissance and Growth. Several developments in the 1990s improved the situation for the Catholic Church in Cambodia. In 1992, Mgr. Ramousse officially resumed his responsibilities as Vicar Apostolic of Phnom Penh. The new Constitution that was promulgated in 1993 guaranteed religious freedom to all. In 1994, Cambodia reestablished diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The year 1995 marked a new milestone for the Cambodian Catholic Church, with the reopening of the seminary in Battambang, the ordination of Rev. Seila Tunlop, the first ordination of an indigenous Khmer Catholic priest in 23 years, and the first meeting in 20 years of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Cambodia and Laos (CELAC). Two years later, in 1997, the Cambodian government formally granted official status to the Cambodian Catholic Church.

At of the beginning of the 21st century, the Catholic Church in Cambodia comprised one vicariate apostolic (Phnom Penh) and two prefectures apostolic (Battam-bang and Kompong-Cham). The vicariate apostolic of Phnom Penh includes the city of Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and the provinces of Kandal, Takeo, Kampot, Kom-pong Speu and Koh-Kong. The prefecture apostolic of Battambang comprises the eight provinces of Battam-bang, Pursat, Kompong Chhnang, Kompong Them, Siem Reap, Preah Vihear, Oddar Meanchey and Banteay Meanchey, while the prefecture apostolic of Kompong Cham covers the provinces of Kompong Cham, Kratie Prey Veng, Stoeung Treng, Mondulkiri. The Catholic Church maintains cordial ecumenical ties with other Christian churches, collaborating to produce an ecumenical Khmer-language translation of the Bible that was completed in 1997.

Bibliography: j. planet, Histoire de la Mission du Cambodge (Hong Kong 1929). b. biermann, "Die Missionen der portugiesischen Dominikaner in Hinterindien," Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft, 21 (1931) 305327; "Die Missionsversuche der Dominiker in Kambodscha," ibid. 23 (1933) 108132. Le missioni cattoliche: Storia, geographia, statistica (Rome 1950) 270271. 2:183185. f. ponchaud, Cambodia Year Zero (New York 1978). f. ponchaud, La cathédrale de la rizière: 450 ans d'histoire de l'église au Cambodge (Paris 1990), by a French MEP missionary priest who was formerly the Prefect Delegate of Kompong Cham; the definitive work on the history of the Catholic Church in Cambodia, with a useful bibliography for further reading and research.

[j. guennou/

j. y. tan]

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