Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) - "Poverty, the extreme poverty in which a large part of the Cambodian population still lives" is one of the main factors that is slowing down the country's development. "It has a direct bearing on people's hopes and lives, their health and access to education," said Mgr Enrique Figaredo Alvargonzales, apostolic prefect of Battambang (one of the three divisions of the Catholic Church in Cambodia)
The prelate, who is vice-president of CELAC, the Bishops' Conference of Laos and Cambodia, also chairs Caritas Cambodia. In this capacity, he took part in the annual campaign by Secours catholique-Caritas France (12-18 May), during which he was a guest speaker.
In an interview with Eglise d'Asie (EDA), Mgr Figaredo said that persistent poverty is due to "large-scale migration" involving "especially the young, who leave the Battambang region," which is largely rural, for a life in the big cities. The preferred destinations are Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. "At the same time, many are going abroad, to Thailand."
In 14 years at the helm of the apostolic prefecture, Mgr Figaredo saw "improvements." Indeed, "The country's economic growth is a fact of life, but the wealth is not distributed equally" and "poverty remains endemic." And among the younger members of the population, the archbishop said, "the desire for a better life is a fact."
Recently, Cambodia has been rocked by a series of demonstrations, with workers and the opposition taking to the streets. In some cases, the government's response was harsh. Now a feeble attempt at dialogue seems to be underway.
"What the country needs is not an escalation of violence, but that things really change in a peaceful manner," he said. "In recent months, we have increased the number of vocational workshops around these themes. This was also an opportunity for extensive contacts with Buddhists, especially monks. "
In an uneven contest that still shows the scars of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, which caused the death of a quarter of the population between 1975 and 1979, one of the main aspects of Church's pastoral work is "building communities that are like families."
"Social ties have suffered a lot and the ongoing economic development does not help to rebuild," the prelate added. For this reason, in schools and centres for the disabled, the elderly and people with mental health problems, Catholics first always seek "to rebuild the community."
Since 2000, Battambang's Catholic community has doubled from 3,000 to more than 6,000 faithful registered parish members. Masses are always crowded, even with people who have not received the baptism, the prelate said, but are attracted by "the liturgy, the spiritual and festive atmosphere, the singing and the dancing."
For the bishop, it is clear that Cambodians still perceive Christianity "as a religion imported from abroad" and that churches are led and guided "by a missionary."
Over time, the aim is to train capable local clergymen to lead eventually the diocese and the parishes. Like in Battambang, where "the environment is more Asian than European, given that there are only two non-Asian priests, whilst the other nine are from Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea, Thailand and India."
Born in Spain on 21 September 1959, Mgr Figaredo joined the Society of Jesus in 1979 and was ordained a priest in 1992. In 1985, at university, he volunteered for the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) where he worked closely with Cambodian refugees in a camp across the border in Thailand.
A graduate in economics, in theology and philosophy, he moved to Cambodia to help amputees and war veterans. In 1991, he and others worked on setting up "Dove House," a place for child war victims.
Like most Cambodian Christians, a small minority (2 per cent) in a largely country Buddhist (93 per cent), he is engaged in charity works in a place characterised by major political and social upheaval.