The young MEP missionary edits Khmer-language Wikipedia. Speaking to AsiaNews, he talked about the challenges and joys of evangelisation via culture. The online encyclopaedia "is not a tool for proselytising,” but a public agora to seek the truth.
Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – Wikipedia is like a public agora for the search for truth. This is how Fr Guillaume Conquer sees the most famous online encyclopaedia. For him, the mission relies on it as well.
Fr Will, as everyone calls him, has been in Cambodia for almost two years. The young missionary with the Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) was ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Monaco and then left for the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh.
Now he finds himself literally immersed in the mission, amid the rice fields of the tiny village of Chom Lak at the head of a small congregation. At the same time, he has edited Wikipedia since 2008, and on Tuesday, he held a Wikimania seminar with 15 participants.
Organised and funded by the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikimania is an annual conference that celebrates access to free knowledge through volunteers around the world. This year however, due to the pandemic, the event was held online rather than in Bangkok. For his part, Fr Will organised one in Cambodia, where people did meet.
“Khmer Wikipedia was created 15 years ago, but since 2016 there have been fewer writers,” he told AsiaNews. “It's up to the new generations to pick up the baton.” His goal is to double the number of Cambodian-language (Khmer) articles by next year. At present, there are more than 8,000 articles; by comparison, those in English exceed 6.3 million.
A cross-section of people took part in Fr Will’s Wikimania, especially young students, but also a Korean entrepreneur, a Cambodian who works for a German cultural institute, an Australian who organises cultural events, and a 60-year-old man who was "the first Cambodian to earn a doctorate in archaeology in Germany. He came with his grandson, who listened in silence all the time,” Fr Will said.
“The COVID situation in Cambodia is far better than in Thailand, Vietnam or Myanmar. There has been no confinement, but schools have been closed for more than a year. Many students have dropped out. When I saw girls who had told me they wanted to study, they were pregnant.”
What has the mission to do with Wikipedia? For Fr Will, this goes back to a long French missionary tradition.
"In the 19th century, scholars were interested in Pali and Sanskrit languages, which are Asia’s equivalent to our Latin,” he explained. Back then, “Cambodian was a spoken vernacular.”
“Missionaries wrote the first French-Khmer dictionaries and some were so accurate that they are still in use today", the missionary explained. "My work at Wikipedia is the same. It's a huge but lively task."
Where can we find the mission in dictionaries? “It is the Incarnation of the Word. The knowledge that becomes flesh.” But, as the 32-year-old missionary is keen to point out, “Wikipedia is not the right tool for proselytising. Its success lies in its neutral point of view. It's a space for knowledge, not preaching.” This is still a big challenge.
“I wrote the article on Thomas Aquinas. But how can one make Cambodians understand that he revolutionised philosophy? It's not easy.” There are many other challenges, linguistic ones, even for père Will.
"Here in the village everyone treats me with respect, but when I leave it, people don't know how to relate to me. What’s a priest to a Buddhist? Where does the Church fit in a country with such a rich history? Sometimes it is difficult to translate even Christianity’s basic concepts.”
There are the material challenges as well. “Most people do not own a computer. For this reason, we only have a dozen contributors even though we have three million visits a month.”
The data of those who access the Cambodian pages of Wikipedia offer Fr Will great insights.
“I see how old they are and what they read. Cambodians are interested in their history, in their politicians. Everyone uses their mobile phones, but there are no computer courses in schools."
The pandemic comes with its own challenges as well, such as a high dropout rate, and the fear of government restrictions.
“During the four-year Khmer Rouge communist regime, schools were closed. People are afraid the same could happen or that the government will not tell the truth about the number of deaths from COVID-19".
Finally, there are the economic challenges. Since the Cambodian government requires at least two weeks of quarantine for anyone entering the country, there are no more tourists.
“Everyone who worked in the sector is out of work, and there are a lot of them. Companies have laid off employees out of necessity.” But there are also some signs of hope.
“Large-scale events have been banned, but we are still holding Mass,” Fr Will said. “In my parish I have 20 people; in Cambodia, that’s the size of a single household!
“Yet, there have never been so many Christians in the country, in every province. It is a unique moment for the Church. We are conscious that we are living in a privileged situation.”