03/05/2015, 00.00
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The martyrdom of Fr. Rapin, the seed of new life for the mission of the Church in Cambodia

by Luca Bolelli
40 years after his martyrdom, the French missionary is still remembered as "the good shepherd". From the beginning of his mission to the war, until his death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. His blood is a "seed" for new Christians. Today, his mission is alive and growing. The story of a PIME priest in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) - He only worked in Kdol Leu for three years, but people loved Fr. Pierre Rapin very much and even today, after forty years, remember him as the good shepherd who, in the footsteps of Jesus, gave his life for his sheep (cfr. Jn. 10:11).

Pierre was born July 7, 1926 in the farming village of Boupere in Vendee (France). Son of farmers, he was the third of five children. From an early age he helped his parents in the fields and in the breeding of cows and chickens. Every morning, before dawn, he lent a hand to help in the milking. He loved manual work particularly repairing broken things, such as the old grandfather clock in the house. He was also artistic, loved to sing, and together with his siblings, their songs would lighten the family atmosphere of their home.

Daily prayer and Sunday Mass were part of their rhythm of life. Already as teenagers, Pierre and his siblings were actively involved in the Young Christian Workers. When Pierre was 18 years old, his sister Maria decided to consecrate herself as a religious. A year later, it was the turn of his younger brother, Claude, to make the announcement of wanting to enter the seminary. Their parents put up no opposition.  They may have been losing much needed man power on the farm, but they willingly accepted their children's choice to give themselves completely to the Lord.

At the age of 21 years, Pierre too decided to enter the seminary. Nine years later, with his brother Claude, he was ordained a priest of the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP) and immediately sent as a missionary to Cambodia.

On mission in Cambodia

On arriving in Phnom Penh, Fr. Rapin immediatley dedicated himself to mastering the Khmer and Vietnamese languages, as the Church in Cambodia was mostly established by Vietnamese immigrants. A year later he was sent on mission to Piem Chom, in the east, near the border with Vietnam.

For 10 years he devoted himself to the service of the Christian community there, committed to making known the Lord and His Gospel. He was also dedicated to improving the living condition of the people: he introduced the breeding of chickens and cultivation of vegetables, he created a cooperative for the breeding of silkworms.

Fr. Pierre was concerned with being as close as possible to his  Christians, often going to visit them. On one of these occasions, he ran into a very poor family and was struck by the small Ke, who because of poverty could not go to school. Fr. Rapin asked his mother's permission to take him back to his mission, and from then on the child became like a son for him.

In 1969 he was assigned to a new mission in the village of Ksach Proceh (today Kdol Leu), 40 km north of Kompong Cham, seat of the diocese. There a young Vietnamese priest, Peter Le Van Dung at Ksach Proceh, who had come to study the Khmer language. The Christian community numbered about a thousand: Vietnamese for the majority, and a hundred Khmer. On Sunday, before Mass, the two groups would pray separately in their native language and then gather together for the celebration of the Eucharist in Latin.

As he had done in Piem Cho, Fr. Rapin is dedicated himself to the human and spiritual development of Christians. He visited the sick and poor families. With the help of Ke he founded a chicken farm with several thousand chickens, the idea being to extend this activity to the entire village as a livelihood for families. A lady jokingly began to call him "Father Hen eggs ", a nickname that has stuck to this day!

There was also another Christian community, on the other side of the Mekong River, which Fr. Rapin was responsible for. This is the area of ​​Bong Ket, where there were several rubber plantations owned by the French colonizers. The small church, on Sunday, hosted an assembly of Khmer, Vietnamese and French faithful.Thus Fr.. Rapin gave his homily in three languages!

The war

He had not been in Cambodia even a year, when war broke out. General Lon Nol, backed by the Americans engaged in the war in neighboring Vietnam, taking power in a coup against the pro-communist King Sihanouk.

The mission's activities were severely curtailed, and as early as May 1970 the Khmer Rouge along with Vietkong, enemies of Lon Nol, invaded the Krouchmar area where Fr. Rapin worked. All of the French were forced to flee. Msgr. Andre Lesouef, the apostolic prefect of Kompong Cham, gathered his missionaries to decide what to do. It was decided that the younger priests were to go to Phnom Penh where the situation is calmer, while the older ones would be allowed freedom of choice.

Fr. Rapin returned to his village to seek the advice of his Christian community. He was undecided what to do, at first thinking it would be more appropriate to leave. However, when the community asked him to stay with them, he changed his mind. So he wrote  a note to Fr. François Ponchaud, who was just across the river at that time and was organizing the mass evacuation of Vietnamese Christians on a large barge (the Nationalist government of Lon Nol was becoming increasingly ruthless and calling on citizens to "kill the Vietnamese"). In the note, Fr. Rapin wrote: "The Christians have asked me to stay, it is God's will".

A few days later, the Khmer Rouge organize a camp in Kdol Leu. In June, a reconnaissance plane photographs Fr. Rapin in his house along with Vietkong soldiers. The plane flew over the area several times, the Khmer Rouge became suspicious and ratcheted up pressure on Fr. Rapin questioning him for an entire week.

In early August, the government air force started to carpet bomb the Krouchmar area, considered a hotbed of Vietkong and Khmer Rouge. The mission is hit several times: the church, rectory, school and the adjoining house of the Sisters of Providence ... everything is destroyed. The two priests go to live in a hut and support themselves with the proceeds of their poultry farm. Although the Khmer Rouge along with Vietkong have taken control of the area, Fr. Rapin and Fr. Le Van Dung are allowed to continue their ministry with people without any major problems.

The Mass is celebrated in homes with wine made from wild grapes. Once, even a bottle of champagne was smuggled out to them hidden in the "trunk" of a banana tree! In some cases the Vietkong allowed the two priests to cycle to visit Christians farther afield: Fr. Le Van Dung was permitted to go to Chhlong and Kratie where the Christians had been orphaned fo their priest, Fr. Cadour, killed a few months earlier. In January 1970 three Vietnamese nuns from the town of Snuol, close to Vietnam find refuge in Kdol Leu. Despite the school and convent having been destroyed, the nuns obtained permission to teach children in some huts.

In early 1972, the political situation worsened. The revolutionary forces seized the Bibles and forced Fr. Rapin to hand over the written text of each homily to be censored. The sisters are banned from providing any form of education. Fr. Rapin promises the Christians: "I will stay as long as there is even one of you!".

His death

On January 25, 1972 Fr. Michel Tan, a Vietnamese priest in charge of the community of Prek Kak, across the Mekong in front Kdol Leu, died. Officially he had a heart attack. That same day, Fr. Le Van Dung who had gone to visit the Christians of Kratie, is picked up by Vietkong soldiers. Fr. Le Van Dung realizes that his end had come and he put on his priestly robes. A few days after being imprisoned in a school, he was moved about 2 km outside the city. The night of March 21, he was led away with his hands tied. The next day, a Christian, who used to bring him food to eat, saw a man wearing Fr. Le Van Dung's clothes, but it was not the priest, who perhaps had been killed the night before.

In the night between February 23 and 24, 1972 a mine, planted by the Khmer Rouge, next to Fr. Rapin's hut exploded while he is sleeping. The missionary did not die but  his legs were seriously wounded. Having lost consciousness, Fr. Rapin called Ke, who was sleeping nearby, and asks: "Ke dear, what happened? They planted a bomb, didn't they? ". "Yes father - responds Ke - you know that they did it to kill you." "My son ... if those who wanted to kill me are captured, forgive them, do them no harm! Revenge is useless. Dearest son ... have faith in God ... I loved our Christians so dearly ... ".

At the sound of the explosion, the Christians were woken up with a start and, alarmed, wondered what happened. At the news that  Fr. Rapin had been targeted, they run to his hut. There they find the priest lying prostrate on the ground while Ke and his wife are desperately trying to save him.  Everyone wants to help. Someone picks up the pieces of cloth with Fr. Rapin's blood, and preserved them as the relics of a martyr.

The Khmer Rouge also arrived, forcing Christians to bring Fr. Rapin to Krouchmar hospital, and Ke along with other young people carry him on a stretcher to the hospital 9 km away. They arrived around 7 in the morning, three of them remaining with Fr. Rapin, while the others returned to the village to inform the rest of the people.

The doctors did not seem to want to bother with  the missionary, and only after the constant appeals of the Christians showed some interest prescribing a list of 30 drugs! The community galvanized themselves to raise funds to pay for the medicine and managed to cover the cost of at least 20. Fr. Rapin's condition improved, but only fractionally.

At 2 pm that afternoon, the Khmer Rouge arrived and took Fr. Rapin away with the claim that they could better care for the missionary but forbidding anyone from accompanying him. The Christians put up a strong opposition: "If there is no one with him, father surely die!". "You are just ungrateful! - some Vietkong violently respond - We want to help you and you can only complain". So the Khmer Rouge put Fr. Rapin on a trailer pulled by a bicycle and took him to their hospital.

But by 7 that evening they were already back to hand over the body of the beloved priest to his community. The Christians were deeply shocked because the missionary's condition had not been grave enough to indicate imminent death. Rumors began to circulate that Fr. Rapin had been injected with poison.

Fr. Rapin's body was carried to a small school that had been transformed into a makeshift mortuary chapel. Many Christians came to kneel before the mortal remains of their father who had given his life for them. The next day his body was buried in a nearby place.

From that moment on, the Ksach Proceh / Kdol Leu mission was without a pastor for more than twenty years. The Vietnamese Christians took refuge in Vietnam. Only the Khmer Christians remained forced underground, praying secretly in their homes or in the silence of the rice fields. Then in 1992, Msgr. Andre Lesouef, returned to Cambodia after the signing of peace treaties, and immediately dispatched catechists to resume contact with the Christians of Kdol Leu. Since then several priests, religious sisters and lay faithful have in turn contributed to resurrecting this community that seemed to have been destroyed.

Today the Kdol Leu mission is alive and growing. The blood shed by Fr. Rapin became the seed of live for new Christians. In 2001 Fr. Rapin's remains were exhumed and translated into a stupa in the new land of the mission.  Today they have found their final resting place in the funeral chapel dedicated to him, next to the church of Kdol Leu.
Thanks be to God.

Fr. Luca Bolelli, a native of Bologna and a priest of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, has been in Cambodia for eight years.


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See also
Fr. Pierre Rapin, martyred under the Khmer Rouge, "alive" in Cambodia’s Catholic community
PIME missionary: Saint Paul Institute a centre of excellence for education in Cambodia
Coadjutor Bishop of Phnom Penh: a "Catholic and Cambodian" Church at the service of people
Pope: Mission ad gentes, the duty of all Christians, even in persecution
Asian Mission Congress: martyrdom, mission, mandate of the Cross