Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – The "long" journey towards the recognition of the first martyrs in the history of the Church in Cambodia began with Pope Francis’ "providential" support, said Fr Gustavo Adrian Benitez, an Argentinian-born priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) who is also national director of the Pontifical Mission Works for the Bishops’ Conference of Laos and Cambodia.
This journey has "great value" for local Catholicism "not only at a spiritual level," but also as “a source of encouragement" and "strong witness for local believers."
Last week saw the opening of the diocesan phase of the beatification process of 35 Cambodian martyrs, killed or left to die of starvation during the persecutions experienced under the bloody regime of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.
The witnesses to the faith, who died between 1970 and 1977, come from Cambodia, Vietnam and France. If the cause proves successful, it will be a first for the Asian country, which so far has no saints or blessed.
For Mgr Olivier Schmitthaeusler, the 44-year-old apostolic vicar in Phnom Penh, this is a key point in a process that began in response to Pope John Paul II’s call to remember all those who died for the faith in the 20th century.
The actual process started in early May in Tangkok village, Kompong Thom province, with a service led by Mgr Schmitthaeusler before a gathering 1,400 people that included bishops, believers, priests, men and women religious and missionaries.
Once the diocesan phase of the process is completed, if the outcome of the investigation is positive, the documentation will be sent to the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints for the second phase.
Informally, the beatification process began long ago, with the creation of a memorial dedicated to the martyrs of Cambodia in Taing Kauk in May 2000.
Taing Kauk was chosen because this is where many Christians from Phnom Penh, Battambang and Kompong Thom lived during the years of Communist rule.
This is also where Mgr Joseph Chhmar Salas, the first bishop in the history of Cambodia, was deported with his parents and family, and where he met his death by starvation and disease in 1977.
The prelate is one of the 35 martyrs killed by Maoist revolutionaries.
For the young local Church, the opening of the process of beatification of the martyrs "has great value" because the majority of this group "is a native to Cambodia," Fr Benitez told AsiaNews,
The priest confirmed the joy and the enthusiasm that marked the opening celebrations of this process, made possible thanks to Pope Francis’ direct involvement.
At the Sixth Asian Youth Day, which took place last August in South Korea, one of the three people who spoke in front of the pope was a young Cambodian woman who lives in Seoul.
As a final wish, said the PIME missionary, she asked Francis to "have Cambodian martyrs, because there are many in various parts of the world but not in our Church."
"Straightaway, the pope welcomed the invitation and promised the young woman that he would contact Cardinal Amato for the next step”. The latter is the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
About a month later, a letter from the Vatican arrived, encouraging Cambodian Church leaders "to open this cause with the support of the universal Church".
“For us, this was a surprise but also a sign that Pope Francis took the story to heart,” the priest said.
"We should be proud,” Fr Benitez said, “for a Church which continues to grow every day, despite its small size and number of members: between 15 and 20,000. Starting the beatification process is an important step. "
“We missionaries are building the local Church,” he added, “which is still in its infancy. It is very important that we can count on the example of these Cambodian brothers who lived, persevered and gave their lives before us."
Their story is "still relevant today". Although “no books have been written about them, people who knew them in life have provided direct accounts and oral stories to begin the process of beatification."
Finally, their story, the clergyman said, "is a reminder of the country's recent past, of the tragedy caused by the Khmer Rouge and the massacres they perpetrated in a nation that today prefers to forget rather than study and understand the past.” Under the Khmer Rouges, up to a quarter of the population died at the hands of the Maoist revolutionaries. (DS)