How does the Catholic Church work here in Battambang?
The first thing that we seek is to share our faith, to show, by our way of living, what it means to be Catholic. Our focus and style of serving & we have services for the sick, for the handicapped, for the students, and for the elderly & allows us to share our faith through all our work.
Secondly, we work to strengthen the faith of our communities. Cambodia has been under war for so long that the Cambodian people could not develop their faith in a peaceful way, from the heart and through the society. We are trying to strengthen their capacity. We do that with our catechists, but also we work by organizing leaders, and through all the services that the Church organizes.
The Church here works through three mechanisms. Every parish has three committees; some work better than others. One group is for Caritas or social services. Another is for the catechists, and it focuses on faith education. The third organizes celebrations, and the ways we gather together, how we celebrate the mass, how we celebrate feasts in honor of the ancestors.
Youth is very prominent in all our communities, because our communities are distorted from the war. We have old people who kept their faith, but the generation that was damaged by the Khmer Rouge is lost. Thus we have few people who are between 50 and 30. The majority are youth and children. So it is the grandparents who bring the grandchildren to the church. If you come to a mass celebration, you will see very few elderly people and very few adults, but many youth and children. It is the opposite of what you would see if you go to a church in Europe or America. The presence of youth here is very positive, and it gives us a very lively community.
We also work to have a relevant presence in the society, mostly through social services. We focus a lot on health and education, and that for us means long-term development. The fourth concern for us will be peace and culture, which includes interreligious dialogue. What interreligious relationships are there in Battambang? Has peace been “built” here after the ravages of war?
Many different groups are working here in Battambang, and, given our history in Cambodia, many are involved in conflict resolution as well as development. Sometimes they get along and sometimes they do not. We have two groups of Muslims here; some among them are more proactive and others are not ready for all these movements of peace. The Buddhist Church also has many representatives. They have good leaders for peace, and we see many excellent initiatives from the Buddhist side, which often include us. When they have activities, they invite the Catholics to be part of them.
We recently had a forum of Religions for Peace, and the government took it very seriously. Is there a particular Buddhist group that takes a lead in these initiatives?
Yes, there are Buddhist groups per se, but there are also local NGOs that have Buddhist roots. A monk, Monychenda
, in the wat next to us, is very proactive in social services and peace. How do you see the government’s role vis-à-vis the work and activities of faith groups?
Sometimes we feel we are under the government, and they seek to control us, and sometimes we feel we are encouraged by the government. I believe they do not want us [various organizations including the churches] to constitute a group that puts pressure on the government, so they want to be closely involved. I understand that, because some points here are so sensitive. The government feels weakened by the many things that are happening. Nonetheless, the Ministry of Religion cooperates 100-percent in our work with the poor. How much interest do the international structures of the Catholic Church take in what you are doing in Cambodia?
They take a very strong interest. As an example, tomorrow I go to Phnom Penh to welcome the Nuncio. Many people are interested in Cambodia and its development, and in our Catholic network many are interested in how the Church is doing here. When I met the Pope, I found that he was keenly aware of much that is happening, not only in Cambodia, but in the whole region: Vietnam, Laos etc. He knows a great deal and he asks probing questions. He was very much interested in how Church leadership is evolving here: I replaced a Cambodian bishop and that raised concerns.
He is very much aware that churches here were destroyed, and thus that the international presence here is quite important. In the Catholic Church today, we have 60 priests in Cambodia, and of those only five are Cambodians. The rest are foreigners, but mainly Asian. If you look at the Jesuit community, there are about 15 or 17 of us, and about three of us are Europeans. The rest are Koreans, Filipinos, Indonesians, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian, about seven different nationalities. The Europeans are Irish and Spanish. Many people we have talked to view the Catholics and the Christians as separate groups. Why does this divide exist in peoples’ minds?
This is a particular problem in Cambodia. The Cambodian government, in the Ministry of Cults and Religion, puts the Catholics on one side and the Protestants on another. The Catholics have been here for 450 years. They have been in Battambang for 250 years. This house, where we are, is itself very ancient, over 100 years old. The Catholics founded this village. So the Catholic Church is part of the Cambodian society, albeit with inputs from France and Vietnam. The other Christian churches, however, have only been here since around the 1960s. As I see it, Cambodia is a Buddhist-Catholic country.
The Catholic Church has been working here for a long time and, especially after Vatican II, it is very much acculturated. We don’t want everyone to be Catholic. We want everyone to know the Catholic faith, but it is up to them whether or not they want to be Catholic. We do not impose; we share. We also value greatly the Buddhist faith and traditions and religion. We even adopt many Cambodian traditions in expressing the Catholic faith: for example, use of incense or sitting on the floor for celebrations. If you come to a celebration, you will see us sitting on the floor. Many Christian people will think that that is not right. Why do I, Kike, a Catholic, have on my desk this carving of the faces of the Buddha? I keep it because it is a Buddhist symbol and it is a part of Cambodia. It is the four faces of God that look out onto the world, with compassion and love. We have to incorporate that perspective into our faith.
My next comment is rather strong: I find it easier to cooperate with the Buddhists than with some Christian and even Catholic groups, because they are too narrow. They come here just to baptize, with no recognition of Cambodian values. They think that the Buddhists are wrong, that they believe too much in the spirits and all these things; they look down on Cambodian traditions. They don’t mind breaking up a family by pushing them to convert, which can cause division in their families. I think the last thing this country needs is a religion to come in and divide the people. It is not a sign of God. God does not want them to be more divided. We have to be here to unite them. That is why we don’t baptize non-adult people. Only children from Catholic families and adults should be baptized.
We try to respect and be together with the Buddhists. Some Christian groups like to be very independent and do whatever they want, and they often go to a village and proclaim the gospel without any consideration of the way people are living. We need to let the Cambodian people know that the last thing that we want is to create division or create conflicts in their community. We want to be and work together. The groups that are proclaiming the Gospel are they just Churches or are they also development organizations?
The churches and development organizations really are very mixed together. The routes by which they come are more through the US these days, but there are also organizations and preachers coming through Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines. They are very good at teaching English and opening the culture of Cambodia, but they are not very good at bringing peace to the hearts of the people. Many youth here learn English with the Protestant pastors. What they do very well is to train Cambodian pastors. They do it very fast.
The Catholic Church is moving far more slowly and not all goes well. Take training of priests. We now have seminarians in Phnom Penh, but matters of celibacy and theology make things go slowly. Young leaders from the countryside enter training and the courses in Phnom Penh are of high quality. But they put young men in a very exclusive atmosphere; they seek to strengthen them in the Christian faith, so that they can go anywhere. They learn very good English, so they have access to the internet and books. They are very sharp. But they are not ordinary Cambodians anymore. They are some kind of upgraded Cambodians, who look down on their brothers and sisters here.
Buddhists are angry about the tensions that are present within Christian communities. The last time that I met with Ven.Tep Vong [the Great Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia], he begged me not to change the way we are: “The Catholics, you are very nice, please you keep your ways; don’t change. You are in the provinces, but you don’t try to convert people; we have to be together; don’t divide us, don’t destroy families, please.” He said it in a very nice way, begging for compassion for the Buddhists. I was touched because he was not against me. He told me, “When I met John Paul II, he told me we have to learn to live together.” He is an old man. Sometimes they say he is quite linked to the government, but he is more than the government. What is your personal story? How did you end up in Battambang?
I have been here 25 years. I came through the JRS, Jesuit Refugee Service. As a Jesuit, I came to Cambodia to work with the refugees and worked at the border with Thailand from 1985 to 1988. Then a Christian group invited me to come to Cambodia. It was the American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers. They are remarkable. They invited me to come and help the disabled. I worked with them in 1988 and in 1989.
JRS wanted to help here in Cambodia with the reconciliation process. They sought to be on both sides of the border, to create bridges of reconciliation. I was part of that team. In 1995, JRS became the Jesuit Service, an instrument of the Jesuits to help Jesuits and partners be together in Cambodia. We have sisters, lay, and priests working together on the same team in Cambodia. We focus a lot on rural development and education, but mainly education in the countryside. We focus very little on Phnom Penh. We have only two Jesuits at the university in Phnom Penh.
So I came here and I began to work with the disabled people. The Arrupe Center which I lead is for handicapped children. Then the Vatican appointed me to be in Battambang, and I have been here ten years. I am also the person in charge of Caritas Cambodia.
The Catholic Church in Battambang is very small; altogether we have about 30,000 people. There may be 50,000 Christians total, though many Christian groups are growing so the number might be larger; our numbers are poor. The Catholic Church has a register and we can collect the figures more easily. In the nine provinces of the northwest, I would say we have about 7,000 Catholics. How many Catholic Churches do you think there are in Cambodia?
In my area, there may be 26. There are about 75 Catholic Churches in Cambodia, though I prefer to call them communities. Some have the status of a real church, while others are considered a workshop. There may be 16 communities that are recognized as churches by the central government in Phnom Penh. The other ten are groups of people who get together to pray. The government takes time to recognize churches, but it is good for us. It allows us to have our ceremonies and to build communities.
Some communities emerge because there are migrants. For example, Pailin is now open and we have many migrants who move from Battambang to Pailin and we follow them. We try to encourage them to pray on Sundays and to have a community life, as a way of supporting them. We don’t know who will stay there, so we don’t need any special status or church. We need just a house and some facilities for the people to gather in.
I would say the future is ours. No need to rush. What is the biggest change you have seen in the Christian picture since you first arrived in Cambodia in 1985?
Social pressures are very relevant. Before, very few people knew about the Christian faith. Now, all of Cambodian society knows about Christianity; they know through NGO work, development work, and churches. A big change for the Catholic Church, specifically, is that people are not afraid anymore. They pray together and they have social operations as Catholics and they are not afraid. During the Pol Pot era, many people were killed only because they said that they were Christians. People were thus afraid to gather together and to give Christian education to their children. Now that is gone; people are not afraid to say they are Christian. They don’t feel they are betraying their Cambodian identity.
Another big change is that the Church is cooperating more and more with development in an open way. Everyone knows and it is ok. For example, this Cambodian Red Cross was built with the help of the Catholic Church. It doesn’t mean that it has to be owned by the Catholic Church. It is about participation. I will build schools in cooperation with the Buddhists: the Buddhists will give us the land, the Catholic Church will build the school, and the government will provide the teachers. All of us as one community of different religions and different duties, we cooperate for the education of the children. That spirit is very evident. Everybody is happy to put their name on it. We have to be humble in our way of cooperating. Sometimes we have means or relationships or a lot of money and the people inside the country can feel threatened that we come and we want to do it in our own way and we don’t consider their voice. We have to be cautious of this. If we are humble, then we have no problem.
This year we have built the Red Cross facility. The district head came to ask me to help build a Red Cross office. They had the land and the staff, but no money to build the office. I asked my friends from Spain. I told one foundation that I wanted to cooperate with the government and they said ok, so the Catholic Church became the bridge of services for the local government. So we were invited there, for the opening and a plaque noted that “this building has been donated by the Catholic Church.” Now we are finished; they do whatever they want. Caritas and Red Cross are there. I find it very meaningful that we are included in that network.
If there is an emergency or tragedy here, they can do something good from that office & for example if there are floods or lack of food. And the Church is present. I think that in that aspect, we are so lucky in Cambodia because the government and the Buddhist institutions are so open for cooperation. They are very open. We have a framework of cooperation that is agile and responsive. They view it as an honor to have us a partner. That is heartening because we are small players here, yet they invite us to be part. I feel that here we are addressing the real needs of Cambodia and that the Church comes in the network for helping the poor. Do you have a recommendation for how the Christian groups could better work together in the future?
There needs to be more consideration of culture, thinking more about being part of the journey of this country. They cannot bring their agenda from the US or from Taiwan. They have to be open to the national context, to the challenges that we have here. In Cambodia, a lot has to do with culture and religion, of course, and poverty. We cannot avoid poverty in this country. We cannot be going to a village and give t-shirts and a little food and then baptize people. That truly spoils our faith. We have to be part of their struggles and strengthen their lives with our faith, but our faith does not have to push them. They have their own faith, and it is good that they have a different faith.
The 21st of September is the International Day of Peace. I said we should go to the wat where they are praying. I planned to go and sit and listen to the speeches. When I arrived there, the head of the monks came straight to me and said’ “oh Father, we are sharing our faith; we would like you to share your experience.” I told him I had not prepared anything. He said, “That’s ok; it doesn’t have to be very long; we want you to share.” Two Buddhist monks were praying and making reflections on peace. There was a Muslim leader there also. I was inspired by the Buddhist approach, the way that they were teaching and praying. It was so much like the Christian faith of love and compassion and forgiveness.
Once I was in the church and a Buddhist monk came to see me. I did not ask him to preach, though they include us very freely. Yes, if I am celebrating mass, I do not know how to include the Buddhist monk. And I have a problem at Christmas. I have Christmas at my parish and we invite everyone. When we perform the nativity, I do not know how to include the monks, to bring them inside the church, I find they don’t know how to behave there and that confuses me. So we have developed new ways of praying together. It doesn’t have to be the mass or our celebration. Because, deeply, I do not know the orthodox way to do it. The Buddhists are much more open than us. They are free. Of course they have rules, I will never be invited to sit down and eat with the monks while the people are worshipping them. But early on they asked me to be in an important place in their own prayers of celebration.
I believe that we are very lucky in meeting this spirit; we have many things to learn from them. And Christians will bring something nice to Cambodia too: we offer the spirit of forgiveness and love and compassion for the ones who are disputing. It seems that the Catholic Church is very integrated into the community here. Is that also the case for the Muslims?
The Islamic religion is even more integrated because they are really part of the Cambodian society. To be Muslim is to be a different ethnic group in Cambodia. The Catholics are different because we are not associated with any ethnic group. If you want to consider us an ethnic group, then we are whites and Vietnamese; these days this stereotype is breaking because we have so many Catholics coming from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Korea.
We used to have four Indian Jesuits here. Their way of life is even simpler than the Cambodians. They are more trained to deal with poverty and they are incredible. It breaks the mentality that Christians are great people coming to share their leftovers. That is broken already. Jesuit missionaries from India come mainly to Ranchee province, where they have no caste. They are people from the forest. They are very community-oriented. When they come, they work with the community and not just the Christians. It is a new thing in the Church here. How would you define the word development’?
Development is on the outside and on the inside. Development means to have infrastructure like schools and irrigation, but also means the organization of the community and the heart of the community, the heart of the people. We work a lot in community development, but in the heart: the heart has to be open to the other. In Cambodia, it is easier than in a developed country where they develop “I, I, I.” Here, we develop “we, we, we.” That is a specific Cambodian way of development: development of the culture of Cambodia. Cambodia has a beautiful culture, with music, dancing, instruments, and poetry that are incredible.
Cambodia’s traditions are all attached to the Buddhist faith and traditions. But the Buddhist faith and church are not all that Cambodian culture is: Cambodian culture is bigger. Before, with the Brahmins and the Buddhists, the Catholic and Christians needed to learn to express their faith through their traditions.
So development here in Cambodia must have a strong aspect of culture. For example, I am involved in the landmines campaign, and we are working very hard in the Catholic Church and with other NGOs. When we want to talk to the people about the landmines problem, we have to think about their culture. We are not talking about something that is a foreign idea to the people. It is something that is in their tradition. So we created a dance called “The Dance of Peace to Ban Landmines” because the Dance of Peace is already part of the Cambodian tradition. Is using these cultural tools also a way to encourage youth to become more interested in the Church?
What we want them to do is to love their own culture. They don’t have import things. They don’t have to sing Michael Jackson songs about peace, they have their own. Let them express peace and justice because they have them in their own culture. It is incredible how much they can express with their own background. Many times I question why they have to get things from abroad. Yes, you get good things from abroad, but you have to figure out how to recreate messages of peace and compassion and justice from your own culture. We have to think together. For example, here they perform a very good nativity. They do the parable of the Good Samaritan in a Cambodian way. They use Cambodian theater. The gospel becomes richer. They go deeply into the message of the gospel, but also deep into their own culture. Where does the funding for the Catholic Church here come from?
For Battambang specifically, we have four sources. One is the NGO Catholic connection. They have foundations to help the works of the Church that are related to development. They don’t mind that we do development work, but inside the frame of the Church. Some NGOs are very Catholic and some are just linked to the Catholic Church. The NGO Catholic community is our main source. The Jesuits are excellent in supporting me & Jesuits from Australia, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, from everywhere. Another source is the Vatican: we get money for the catechists and priest, but not a big amount. In my case, I get a lot of support from my friends and family, my personal connections. Maybe fifty percent of the funds here come from friends and my local government. My local government means my city hall or province. Another thirty percent will come from Catholic NGOs and another 10 percent will come through the Vatican. We also do income generation here. We have our own rice fields that we work, and we produce the rice that we eat, even though we do charity with the rice. We share the rice with the Buddhist temple. The rice goes to help the monks in their caring for the elderly. Is this funding structure similar to that of the other three dioceses?
No. They get a lot of help from the Foreign Mission of Paris. The Vatican will be the same, maybe 15-20%, and other Catholic NGOs. We use our personal network. Our budget here will be over one million dollars. And I am not accounting for the value of the rice we produce because it is a lot; if we had to buy rice in the market, we would probably spend 300,000 USD because we have 12 kindergartens and two health centers to feed. In the parishes, we have services for the elderly and sick people who cannot afford to by rice by themselves. We help them. We do a lot of charity. From outside, it may seem like a little, but for us it is a big effort because it is the rice that the community produces. Their own production goes to the neighbors. We don’t only help them; we visit them and give them encouragement and we build good relationships with everyone in the community. Where do you see Cambodia in ten years?
That’s a very difficult question and I have few good answers. But there are some real needs. We need the government to become a little more democratic. The poor need to be able to participate far more in the management of resources. If these two things come true, I think that the future of this country will be extraordinary, because we have so many youth who are eager to learn, work, and build their country. But if they do not find good ways to cooperate and engage, we will have a lot of migration and conflicts in the country. We thus need open participation in the government of the people.
If all goes well, I think this country in ten years will be developed, not to the level of Japan or Korea, but much better than, say, Laos or Burma. There is so much potential. The youth are ready to build the country. We have so many investments from outside; money is coming in all the time and much of it is helping to develop the rural areas, which are still not productive. And because labor here is cheap, many industries that require intensive labor are coming here, textiles, for example, and other activities linked to what we wear or eat. But the government has to be smart. If the government keeps up with the current pace of corruption and keeps all benefits of financial flows to itself, we will see a disaster.
I think the religions that work here have something to do in this area. They need to keep the hearts of people open, not only the hearts of the big leaders, but at the level of the district; I have more hope in the local leaders than the big leaders, and the Church needs to focus there, on ordinary leaders. We can help support the good people who think about the development of their own people, and not only about the party and filling the pockets of the big ones. There is too much of this. I am alienated by the tales of the big people who are selling the country, the land, the forest, and the natural resources on the markets. Fortunately I see little of this; I say thank goodness, because my limited knowledge allows me to keep up my energy and my faith in Cambodia.
We do hear about many scandals, especially the forestry and the land that are given away to different companies, while the money goes into the pockets of a few that are linked to the government. That is terrible. If instead the money went into real commerce, or was used to build better roads and schools and universities, that would be good, but I do not think that is happening.
Yet, if we view all these matters in a negative light, we will point the country to a large future crisis. I have hope in the children of our leaders, who are studying abroad and come with new ideas, hopeful that we can build something good. When these youth who have studied abroad come home, they have wonderful ideas. They are youth that are willing to help this country and they are uneasy at what their uncles and fathers are doing. Many people now in the government have their background in years of war, and thus tend to use authority and intimidation. There is a need here to learn to deal in politics and that is a process that is happening, slowly.
Cambodians in general are quite smart; sometimes they can seem quite narrow, thinking only about lining their pockets, but then they will do something to surprise you. For example, the Minister of Education is incredible. He is in the party and aware of the party. He has good teams. He is aware of the challenges of the education. I see less of such a spirit in other ministries, where the focus is far more on politics.