Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/ÉDA) – About 300 Cambodians will be baptised during Holy Week, joining Cambodia’s 23,000-strong Catholic community.
The ceremony will be held on the Easter Vigil, in each of the country’s three ecclesiastical districts: the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh and the apostolic prefectures of Battambang and Kompong Cham. In the vicariate alone, 128 people will be baptised in a festive service that will unite the whole community.
In the recent past, Easter celebrations have become particularly important in Cambodia. The first Mass celebrated after the years of war that devastated the country took place in 1990.
That "Easter Sunday Mass has remained in the memory of the faithful as the Resurrection Mass,” said Fr Vincent Sénéchal, vicar general of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (Société des missions étrangères de Paris, MEP), who worked in Cambodia as a missionary from 2002 to 2016.
The main religion in the nation of 15.9 million inhabitants is Theravada Buddhism (96 per cent). By contrast, Catholics constitute only 0.2 per cent of the population, but their presence in the Southeast Asian nation dates back to the 16th century.
In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot perpetrated mass slaughter. This was followed by Vietnam’s domination (1979-1989). The result can be seen in the numbers: In 1970, there were 65,000 Catholics; in 1990, there were 5,000.
Relations with the authorities and the discreet but steady work of evangelisation of the missionaries have given a new impetus to the country’s Catholic community, which is getting ready to embrace hundreds of new believers.
In addition to 300 baptisms, the vitality of the local Church is reflected in the ongoing diocesan investigation on 35 martyrs killed under the bloody Maoist regime, in the ordination of new priests, like Fr Stéphane Se Sat last December, and in the construction of new places of worship, like the Chapel of St Therese of the Child Jesus in Takéo, in the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh.
Local Church sources report that the new converts reflect the sociological reality of the country: they are young adults, mostly ethnic Khmer, from a Buddhist background, who heard about the Church through its presence in various social domains, in particular health care, education and vocational training.
As Fr Sénéchal noted, the Church in Cambodia promotes an "integral evangelisation, aimed at developing people in all of their dimensions: socio-economic, educational, professional, spiritual and family."
One of the Church’s initiatives of social entrepreneurship is the "Peace Village" set up in late 2015 by Mgr Olivier Schmitthaeusler, which allows disabled people and people living with AIDS to live alongside able-bodied people.