Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Deep foundations for the future: Catholicism in Cambodia

Thu, 2006-02-09 19:11 — ABN

This is a good article, especially for American Buddhists as it may help us see some Buddhist issues from a new perspective. Quote: "He doesn't see Buddhism as offering relief. People perceive Buddha and Jesus very differently, he says. Our God is very close to us. He is our father and our friend. In Buddhism, you find the opposite. Buddha is very high, very far away from us. Jesus comes to encounter us. But with Buddha, they must go to Buddha may also help to dispell undue idealism about Asian social conditions and/or Buddhism as it is actually practiced and perceived in its traditional contexts. ABN

02/09/2006 Kristen Hannum
SIEM REAP, Cambodia: A runny-eyed cat prowls among the early worshipers praying before Mass at the Catholic church here. They sit, cross-legged on straw mats, distracted by a young man who is trying to fix a complaining fan. He finally turns it off.

The church fills with Japanese, Korean and Filipino tourists and residents, Cambodian families, schoolgirls dressed in white shirts and long blue skirts. There are veiled women religious dressed in grey habits, and three Missionaries of Charity "Mother Teresa" Sisters.

When Father Pedro Gomez, a Jesuit from Colombia, celebrates the Mass, he kneels behind the low altar. His homily is filled with Khmer sentences that end in "bat" the Khmer word for "yes" as said by men, a polite form of speech that seeks to persuade rather than bully.

The scents of flowers and incense in the church mingle with kitchen smells of frying garlic, wafting in through the open, latticed windows.

After Mass, Father Gomez greets worshipers on the front porch. He speaks in Khmer, Spanish and English, and often makes the humble Cambodian's lotus blossom gesture by bringing his palms together and bowing. It means peace and sanctity, and brings to mind compassion and the love of Jesus, he says.

Father Gomez, in Cambodia since 2000, usually works in the provincial capital and apostolic seat of Battambang. The range of his ministry (which began with English lessons in Toronto, so that he could learn Khmer, since there is no Spanish-Khmer dictionary) includes finding rural youngsters room and board at secondary school, catechism for children and adults, an agricultural assistance program, and teaching nonviolence.

In Battambang, 10 priests serve 7,000 Catholics, a majority of whom are Vietnamese. Many are fisherfolk on the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. These Catholics worship in floating wooden churches on the lake, speak Vietnamese and grumble that Khmer has been made the liturgical language of Cambodia.

We are trying to make the Church inculturated here, says Father Gomez.

Catholicism first came to Cambodia with Portuguese trading ships in the 1500s. A few Catholics from Japan and Indonesia arrived in Cambodia in the 1600s, fleeing persecution in their own countries. The largest influx, however, came in the 1800s, when Cambodia became a French colony. The French brought Vietnamese administrators and soldiers with them, many of whom were Catholic.

Vietnam and the Vietnamese were so dominant that French missionaries of the Pontifical Missions Etrangères de Paris coming to Cambodia would typically learn Vietnamese, not Khmer. Catholicism was effectively a Vietnamese and French religion in Cambodia.

That is still the view of many Cambodians: Catholicism is not only a foreign religion, it is a foreign religion associated with their ancient enemy, the Vietnamese.

In response, the bishops say that the Church must serve the Vietnamese Catholics in Cambodia, but also encourage them to learn Khmer and do their part in making peace. Battambang's Apostolic Prefect Enrique Figaredo, better known as Bishop Kike, writes that Cambodia's Vietnamese must integrate themselves into a culture that discriminates against them.

Father Gomez believes the Church offers gifts of grace to Cambodians, scarred by decades of violence. Their faces smile, but in their hearts there is violence, he says. Sometimes I am very surprised by their reactions. You see very strange things. Sometimes when people steal, they kill. Sometimes parents use violence when they speak to the young.

He doesn't see Buddhism as offering relief.

People perceive Buddha and Jesus very differently, he says. Our God is very close to us. He is our father and our friend. In Buddhism, you find the opposite. Buddha is very high, very far away from us. Jesus comes to encounter us. But with Buddha, they must go to Buddha.

There are similarities, Father Gomez acknowledges. Both faiths offer everlasting life. But the way there is very different. Buddhism's wheel of life is something to escape; mistakes and wrong actions throw a person into lifetimes of punishment. For us, it's more about God's love, although our deeds are also very important.

Father Gomez says that although Cambodians are culturally Buddhist, there's an emptiness inside. Buddhism here is just a tradition.

The Khmer Rouge killed most of Cambodia's 65,000 Buddhist monks; soldiers also destroyed the temples and most of Cambodia's Buddhist literary works.

Some of the worst of the Khmer Rouge criminals have decided that Christianity offers a more hopeful eternal future than Buddhist atonement through infinite reincarnations.

Khmer Rouge warlords in Pailin, a city southwest of Battambang on the Thai border, have become millionaires via illegal logging, casinos and gem mines, smuggling the gems past corrupt border agents on both the Thai and Cambodian sides. Some of those gem mines, like scenes from hell in Lord of the Rings, are right in Pailin, as are four evangelical churches with booming congregations. Jason Burke of the Observer newspaper, quoted one pastor who said 70 percent of the converts in Pailin are Khmer Rouge.

When I was a soldier I did bad things. I don't know how many we killed. We were following orders and thought it was the right thing to do, Thao Tanh, 52, a former Khmer Rouge, told Burke. I read the Bible and know it will free me from the weight of the sins I have committed.

The notion of salvation for killers makes Ronnie Yimsut angry. Yimsut, an Oregonian, escaped Cambodia at the age of 15, after the Khmer Rouge killed his family.

Do keep in mind that sins created by men (and women) of the KR [Khmer Rouge] organization can never be erased, certainly not by becoming a Christian, not in this lifetime, he wrote in a letter to the Phnom Penh Post's editor. You have to pay the price for everything you do: then, now, and in the future, both good and bad.

Several years ago, Yimsut visited the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, and wrote about that as well.

I felt very sorry for the destruction of native forest along both sides of the road. It became almost a barren landscape void of majestic rain forest, which stood here once. . . .

We later went into a Khmer Rouge-operated casino just 100 yards from the border. . . . Two, three, a thousand dollars equivalent were wagered by individual gambler in a single bet. I was amazed to see so much money being wagered at this remote and primitive jungle casino. . . . When a communist turns into a capitalist, he goes all the way out to the moon.

The best known of the former Khmer Rouge who has turned to Christianity is Duch, the former chief of the notorius Tuol Sleng torture and extermination center in Phnom Penh. There he oversaw the murders of 16,000 or more prisoners. Only seven are known to have survived.

Even so, the Cambodian regional chief of the Seventh Day Adventists told author Tom Fawthrop that he found Duch to be an inspirational figure. Even if he killed 16,000 or two million, if he confesses, the Lord accepts that,Rev. Daniel Walter said.

Some evangelicals have aggressively gone after Cambodians, through gifts of rice and promises of not only forgiveness in the hereafter, but miracles here and now.

In 1994, the Cambodian police safeguarded Texas Assembly of God preacher Mike Evans out of the country before mobs could seize him. Evans had promised miracles on hundreds of radio advertisements: the blind would see, the crippled would walk and the dead would rise again. Thousands of Cambodians traveled from across the country to fill a Phnom Penh stadium to hear his message.

The miracle cures failed to materialize, and Evans had to flee. Angry Cambodians returned Bibles, destroyed a church in Phnom Penh and sabotaged churches in the provinces.

Father Charlie Dittmeier, a Maryknoll missioner, knows the story, though it happened before he came to Cambodia. He says part of the problem for the Catholic Church here is that Cambodians rarely differentiate between Christian denominations. So when freewheeling enthusiasts such as Evans appear with harebrained schemes promising to raise the dead, they tarnish everyone.

That shouldn't be a surprise: how many Americans, after all, differentiate between Theravada Buddhism, as is practiced in Cambodia, and Mahayana Buddhism, prevalent in Vietnam?

Even those within the Catholic Church don't understand the differences, even though we explain them many times, says Father Gomez.

For me it's the same, says one woman apologetically, who has just attended the Mass.

Father Gomez says that although Protestant congregations are growing faster, they're not necessarily forming a lasting Christianity. Evangelicals from the United States, the Philippines and Korea, he says, go to villages, give rice, teach English, and after three months baptize.

It takes four years to become a Catholic in Battambang. Our goal is not to get many people, but rather people who truly believe, says Father Gomez.

A convert must come to a weekly study session for four years, first learning that the Church is community. That contrasts with Buddhism, where a person goes to the pagoda and kneels and prays, but worships individually, rather than as part of a community, says the Colombian priest.

Bishop Kike has written that Cambodian Catholic communities today resemble Catholic communities on the early American frontier, where Catholic families organized prayer groups and counted themselves fortunate when a circuit riding priest stopped to say Mass in a living room, a makeshift space, or a newly built church.

Those under 18 aren't allowed to convert to Catholicism unless their family is converting. The priests instead tell young Cambodians to hold onto their Catholic faith, but don't create conflict.

Celibacy may impede the Church's ability to attract seminarians. Buddhist monks also pledge celibacy, but their commitment to religious life can be as brief as six months. Many pledge for five years. Short time, offers Father Gomez with a laugh. But with us it's a life commitment. A whole life!

Even so, the Catholic community in Battambang is growing. The Church works through social programs. “After that comes conversion, which is a fruit of the work we’re doing with the people,” says Father Gomez. “We don’t just go out and say, come and know Jesus.”

When the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, they slaughtered everyone in a Benedictine contemplative community, executed Khmer priests, and razed Phnom Penh’s cathedral. A group of Carmelite Sisters escaped to Vietnam.

Like everything else, from families to government, the Church has had to start over here in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge's Year Zero's destruction of Cambodian culture.

Among Western religious expelled by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 was Mission Etrangères de Paris Bishop Yves Ramousse, Phnom Penh's bishop. His ministry to Cambodians didn't end with his exile, however. The pope charged him with the pastoral care of Khmer Catholics worldwide. During those years, the French mission translated both the Bible and the liturgy into Khmer. They and other Catholic organizations and orders, including Catholic Relief Services and the Jesuits, worked in the refugee camps in Thailand. Bishop Kike, then a seminarian, was one of those working in the border camps.

In 1990, when the government legalized religion, a Catholic community began gathering in the Phnom Penh Caritas house. Caritas is the international relief agency of the Catholic Church. On Christmas, the government returned part of a former seminary to the community. The Khmer Rouge had used it as a jail, and it had then been used as a barracks. The Church bought back the rest of the seminary, and the complex became Phsar Tauch Parish.

During repairs on Phsar Tauch, a man fell from the roof and died clearly the work of a neak ta, folks around here said, a tree spirit angered by the removal of a spirit house that the Khmer troops had built to honor it.

Mission Etrang¨res de Paris Father Emile Destombes, who led the congregation, searched for a way to allay people's fears. Diocesan history records the outcome: A solution was found for Christmas: a house was built in its stead as a croche to be given away as well as others to the poor.

The neak ta, a bit like Irish fairies, are everywhere in Cambodia. The little spirit houses, built to honor them, sometimes have a human figure, sometimes a stone. They're territorial spirits, having to do with ancestors, fertility, weather and health and, says Norman Lewis, the travel writer, they reveal not only the Hindu influences on Cambodia from the earliest Khmer kingdoms, but also what has happened to both Hindu gods and the Khmer people.

Lewis, in the 1951 travel memoir, A Dragon Apparent, wrote that the neak ta eysaur and the neak ta en were in fact the Hindu gods Siva and Indra. Thus had the powerful Brahamical gods of the Khmer Empire shrunk and shriveled along with the Empire itself. And now they were no more than neak ta mere tree spirits to frighten babies with.

Bishop Ramousse officially returned to Phnom Penh in 1992, two years after the Cambodia government legalized religion, and in 1994, the Vatican established relations with the Kingdom of Cambodia.

In 1995, a Khmer priest was ordained, the first since 1975.

In 2001, Father Destombes became Phnom Penh's bishop.

There are now 19,000 Catholics in Cambodia; two-thirds are Vietnamese. There are only a handful of Khmer among the 50 priests, four seminarians and 60 religious.

It's very much an expatriate church, says Rich Balmadier, Cambodian head for Catholic Relief Services. They're all here on visas. All the Filipina sisters they'd be out if the government changed its mind. Everyone is here through the good graces of the government.

CRS in some ways works more closely with the government than with the dioceses. Balmadier has turned to Bishop Destombes a couple times for letters of support. But most of the time, his priorities are appropriately elsewhere, says Balmadier.

He says the Phnom Penh Diocesan offices have concentrated on pastoral work, which no one else is doing.

Many Catholic groups are in Cambodia working on medical, agricultural, and other development needs. It's a bit of the tail wagging the dog, with Catholic NGOs in place before there was a real Church, says Balmadier.

He saw a similar situation evolve in Chad, with independent religious orders arriving with their own separate funding streams. The bishop wasn't in charge, and at a point, he said, No. It took a lot of work to pull everything together. At the end, there was still plenty of room for initiative, but there was a diocesan plan. As the Church infrastructure builds, there will be more linkage here as well.

Ballmadier says the Cambodian Church's successes in rebuilding, in pastoral work, in outreach through radio and television have been phenomenal. Consider that in 1991, there was zero because in 1990, religion was still outlawed.”

Phsar Tauch remains Phnom Penh's only parish, with two Khmer Masses every weekend; a French Mass on the first and third Saturdays.

The Phnom Penh Maryknoll Community, at the bishop's request, is responsible for the weekly English-language Mass, a spirited celebration that takes place in the auditorium of the buttoned-down Russian Cultural Center.

It's standing-room-only, with the international community crowded into the big, bright room: Women in saris, Africans, Westerners, Indonesians, Filipinos and Koreans the crowd is young, with dozens of families.

Father Dittmeier says that if ever a person wanted to drop out of their Catholic worship commitments, Cambodia would be the place to do it. What's special about the English Mass, he says, is its intentionality. People are here because they want to be.

It's easy to pick out the buzz-headed Marines from the U.S. embassy, says Father Dittmeier, who once did a double-take over a couple of saffron-robed Buddhist monks sitting in the front row, singing the communion hymn along with everyone else.

Father Dittmeier has been told there are only five Jews in all of Cambodia. They come here, too, he says.

So even though it's a Catholic liturgy, there are any number of Lutherans, Methodists, Orthodox and all varieties of Christian grateful for the chance to meet in community to worship God.

The music is contemporary and upbeat, with guitars, a synthesizer and a Philippine choir, singing in parts.

Enme Malanog, from the Philippines, says she likes the service. We come from a Catholic country, this helps both with homesickness and to spread the Word.

Source of this article

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