Catholicism in Cambodia: A few faithful in a land recovering from autogenocide

Multiple sources put the Catholic proportion at a mere 0.2 percent of the general population and there are only 10 native-Cambodian priests in the entire country of 17 million.

Independence Monument at night, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Image: Paul Szewczyk/Unsplash.com)

The term “genocide” is one of the more emotionally-charged words in the English lexicon. But there’s something yet more extreme about an autogenocide, in which the perpetrators belong to the same ethnicity as the victims.

The 1975-1979 reign of the Khmer Rouge ranks up there with the most dismal and heinous periods in human history. Under that paranoid, dysfunctional, and barbaric regime, everyone was in severe danger, even high-ranking Khmer Rouge members. Some 2 million persons in Cambodia perished due to slaughter, starvation, or overwork in a forced labor camp. Minority groups, such as Christians, were in particular danger. In fact, 80 percent of them would die during those four years.

Cambodian Catholics have remained “very discreet on the subject” of the Khmer Rouge, says Fr. Damien Fahrner, a French priest from the Paris Foreign Missions Society who serves at the Child Jesus Parish in the capital city of Phnom Penh.

The country now tends to have a generational gap between older persons (who personally endured the horrors) and a younger generation that often seems to have only a scant idea of the astounding brutality that ravaged their homeland.

One of the most notorious violators, Kaing Guek Eav aka “Comrade Duch,” died at age 77 last September. ‘Duch’ was the former Director of the Khmer Rouge prison S-21 (better-known as “Tuol Sleng”). Here more than 18,000 men, women, and children were interrogated and tortured before being executed at the nearby Killing Fields.

When the Khmer Rouge regime crumbled, Duch fled Phnom Penh and for many years lived under an assumed name in remote parts of Cambodia. He also converted to Christianity, before eventually turning himself in to authorities.

Unlike other Khmer Rouge leaders, Duch admitted to committing severe crimes. However, he later sought leniency by contesting that he was merely following the orders of a rogue regime. A United Nations-backed Cambodia Tribunal found him guilty of crimes against humanity, murder, and torture. He ultimately received a life-sentence.

A number of Cambodian evangelical Protestants – including the Khmer-American pastor who baptized him – forgive Duch for the torture and trauma he unleashed upon their homeland. They appear glad to accept him as a brother in Christ.

However, Fr. Ashley Evans, an Irish priest and founding member of Jesuit Service Cambodia (JSC), tends to encounter a different type of sentiment. He cautions, “Don’t be fooled by the attitude of a tiny number of Cambodian evangelicals in relation to their attitude to Duch. Most Cambodians are still horrified at the crimes inflicted on their ancestors by the Khmer Rouge as are most Cambodian Christians.”

He adds, “God will be the final judge for Duch, but most Cambodian Christians believe that Duch will have a harder time explaining himself to St. Peter than he did at the International Tribunal in Phnom Penh.”

Despite reports that younger Cambodians are generally uninformed about the details of Khmer Rouge atrocities, Evans – who for many years served as a Mathematics and Philosophy professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh – contends that the “trauma has been passed onto younger generations in the form of silence regarding missing relatives and a general fear that bad things could return again if we don’t obey the authorities.”

And yet Evans says the daily lives of Cambodians are now of “much better quality” than when he first arrived in 1992 – a time when most persons in the country were “not far from starvation level.” The economy has continued to develop, and the “quality and accessibility of education has improved dramatically.” He adds how, “For many years, Cambodia enjoyed a free press, radio and television network with a growing and vibrant democratic opposition. However over the last five years, things have taken an authoritarian turn.”

Cambodia now has an overall population of about 17 million, most of whom belong to the Khmer ethnic group. At least 95 percent of the populace practices Theravada Buddhism, though Fahrner points out that, “Cambodians have a very strong animist religiosity, which very often prevails over Buddhism strictly speaking…it is the mixture of Buddhism and animism that makes up traditional Cambodian religion.”

According to the CIA World Factbook, Christians account for just 0.5 percent of the overall population. Other sources, however, put the Christian proportion at a significantly higher figure. Fahrner relates how the number of Cambodian Protestants is “difficult to assess” but “for sure, the number is growing.” He points out that these Protestant communities “have a real zeal for the mission” and “proclaim the Gospel to all humankind with great enthusiasm.” He also adds how the Protestant churches typically have a much faster path to baptism, as opposed to the comparatively complex Catholic catechumenal process.

“Preparation for baptism in the Catholic Church in Cambodia is very long,” says Evans. “It takes several years of reflection, bible study and preparation before former Buddhists are admitted to the Sacraments.” He estimates the dropout rate is about 50 percent. He also adds the dropout rate of new converts to Protestant churches is “higher yet.” Therefore, he maintains that, despite the recent number of baptisms into the evangelical Protestant faith, these churches have not necessarily found a key to lasting success in Cambodia.

Of course, Khmer converts to Catholicism are not at a surplus either. Multiple sources put the Catholic proportion at a mere 0.2 percent of the general population. Moreover, the majority of Catholics here are ethnic Vietnamese. Fahrner says they account for about 80 percent of Catholics in the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh (Cambodia has no Catholic dioceses; there is one apostolic vicariate and two apostolic prefectures).

Many of these ethnic Vietnamese (even those born in Cambodia) lack legal residency status in Cambodia and are at risk of deportation to Vietnam, even if they don’t know anyone there. “It is still a big problem for this community,” Fahrner says. “They are not considered as Cambodian in Cambodia, nor are they considered as Vietnamese in Vietnam.”

Because ethnic Vietnamese children do not receive a Cambodian birth certificate, they are ineligible to obtain anything beyond a fourth-grade education in the public schools. Still, the majority of them manage to attain a spoken fluency in the Khmer language, relates Fahrner. And so, for the most part, Mass is celebrated in the Khmer tongue throughout Cambodia.

Vietnam and Cambodia have a complex, often bitter history, and Evans says the Church provides one of the few platforms where Cambodians and Vietnamese “actually dialogue together about their historical and cultural differences.” In communities with a sizable Vietnamese minority, “such dialogue is absolutely essential to manage conflicts and misunderstandings.” Evans adds that successful coexistence is “still a work in progress” and the “biggest single challenge” that the Church in Cambodia faces in the coming years.

Fahrner points out that another main challenge is the lack of a local clergy. There are 10 native-Cambodian priests. Evans, who has personally taught Theology to nine of these ten priests, adds there are about 100 Catholic nuns, less than one-fifth of whom are native Cambodians. The country has only one Catholic seminary.

On the whole, the Khmer people have been far more resistant to Catholicism than the neighboring Vietnamese. The faith first came to Cambodia in the mid-1550s by way of the Portuguese Dominican Gaspar da Cruz. He failed to convert any natives and lamented how he “could not baptize more than one gentile,” who died soon after the baptism. Eventually, Catholic clergy largely gave up on trying to convert Khmer people and instead focused their ministry on Portuguese merchants and Vietnamese Catholics who had fled persecution in their native land.

Even the colonial period with French occupation – which lasted from the 1860s to 1953 – brought only limited impact to the religious demographics. The first native Cambodian priest was not ordained until 1957.

Then, just as the Church gained some slight degree of momentum, the nation fell into turmoil: the Cambodian Civil War, followed by the Khmer Rouge catastrophe and the ensuing Cambodian-Vietnamese War, which persisted until the latter part of 1989.

On Easter Sunday 1990 a group of Cambodian Catholics came together at a theater in Phnom Penh to pray publicly for the first time in 15 years.

In 1995, Fr. Pierre Sophal Tonlop became the first Cambodian priest ordained since 1975, when the Khmer Rouge nightmare began.

There have been no cathedrals in Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge destroyed them, before extracting the metal to make nails for the revolution.

The majority of Khmer Catholics are relative newcomers to the faith. “This reborn church remains fragile,” says Fahrner. “Therefore, it’s important to strengthen the faith of the faithful, who did not benefit from a transmission of the faith from a previous generation.”

Despite its small size, the Church in Cambodia makes significant contributions through charity, be it in the domain of healthcare, education, or other social services. Such charity can come from individual Catholics, local parishes, or undertakings on a vicariate (diocesan) level. Fahrner adds how, during the Covid-19 pandemic, “We are distributing food, soap and face masks to the needy.”

Even before the pandemic, Fahrner had seen much societal change in Cambodia. When he first arrived ten years ago, the internet for the most part “had not yet woven its network here.” But now, the nation is “opening up to modernity in an unbridled manner” and is inundated with “images and models conveyed by the internet.” He notes with some concern how such influence, particularly in the cities, has led to a “transformation of the traditional family model.”

But amid these changes, Fahrner continues to see “the Love of God working here,” and he is “edified by the faith of some Christians everyday.” He knows that Cambodia “is still a wounded nation.” However, he also points out how, “The new generation has not known the war, and they are looking towards the future, with smartphones in their hands…Cambodia is writing a new page in its history.”


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About Ray Cavanaugh 15 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

3 Comments

  1. The horror of the Khmer Rouge Genocide of up to 2 million people from mid to late 1970’s was allowed after US midguided, mismanaged Vietnam War. The after math of Vietnam was the US public did not care about what was happening in East Asia, about the genocide and the press barely covered it. So you end up with a genocide that no one cared about and still don’t.

    It illustrates in stark terms what evolves from the evils of Marxism and its principles. Today it is repenting itself in China with it slave labor camps, with the media looking the other way. It also shows itself in the growing abortion policies in the West and America. It highlights the need for the Catholic Church to boldly speak up, because no one else will.

    Would add this article also points out what happens when Christainity in general and the Catholic church is not present in any significant numbers. While Vietnam was a disaster for the US there was no genocide. While not Catholic or Christain country they still represent a sizable minority in Vietnam and it is better off for it.

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