More than 450 years ago, a Portuguese Dominican missionary first brought the Catholic faith to the Kingdom of Cambodia which later became part of the colony of French Indo-China.
The church never developed in Cambodia as dramatically as it did in Vietnam — also part of French Indo-China — mainly because Christianity was seen as a European, a “foreign” religion in a country where 94% of the people are Buddhist. But there were small Catholic communities spread through large parts of the kingdom and they worshipped in substantial Gothic church buildings that would not have been out of place in Paris.
Cambodia gained independence from France in 1954, but eventually the kingdom was drawn into the Vietnam War (called the “American War” here) and was heavily bombed. Then at the end of that conflict, the Khmer Rouge arose, an ultra-nationalist, ultra-communist group that wanted to rebuild Cambodia to its glory days of the 1100s when the Khmer people built Angkor Wat.
The Khmer Rouge wanted no “old ideas” such as religion to interfere with their plans for utopia, and both Buddhism and Christianity were targeted. As the faithful were driven underground and the clergy killed or otherwise eliminated, the French Bishop Ramousse, about to be expelled from the country, hurriedly ordained Fr. Chhmar Salas, a Cambodian priest, as the first local bishop, but he soon died as one of the victims of the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge attacked not only the church people but also the church buildings. There were 121 churches in Cambodia before the Pol Pot era. Of those, only two remain today, one because it was used as a barracks for Khmer Rouge troops.
Today the Cambodian Catholic Church is rebuilding, but it is very different from the church one would experience in Louisville. One big difference is the size. There are only 5,000 Cambodian Catholics in the whole country (the size of Missouri), out of a population of 16,000,000 people. There are also 15,000 Vietnamese Catholics who live along the Mekong River and about 1,000 foreign Catholics.
The new church is also developing according to a very different model, one that more closely aligns with Cambodian culture. The new church buildings are in a Khmer style, often similar to Buddhist temples, so that they are more welcoming to Khmer people who usually know almost nothing about Christianity.
Surprisingly for such a small country, Cambodia has three dioceses for just 20,000 Catholics — due to the difficulty of travel — but the dioceses here are called apostolic vicariates and prefectures because Cambodia is still considered a mission territory by the Vatican. Serving the church are seventy-two priests from about fifteen countries. Only eight of the priests are from Cambodia.
The restored Catholic Church in Cambodia lacks numbers and experience and even ordinary church structures such as a chancery office and a marriage tribunal, but it has young and enthusiastic people, a youthful and very active bishop, a good reputation among the general populace, and there is great promise for the future of the Catholic People of God here in Cambodia.
Father Charlie Dittmeier is a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville working as a Maryknoll Associate Priest and is assigned to the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. He is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and is also pastor of the English-speaking parish there.