Bangkok (AsiaNews) – Among the great figures of the Catholic Church of Thailand, local Catholics remember with special veneration Fr Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung, better known as Fr Benedikto Chunkim, first martyred priest in the history of modern Thailand who was beatified by John Paul II on 5 March 2000 at a solemn ceremony in St Peter's Square.
Born on 31 January 1895, the diocesan priest died on 12 January 1944 at the end of a five-year period (1940-1944) characterised by attacks against the Christian minority in the former kingdom of Siam. As a religion, Christianity was seen as something foreign, closely associated with French colonialism. As a result, priests were killed, and Catholic schools and churches closed.
At the time, being Buddhist and Thai meant the same thing. Catholics were often considered "parasites," exploiting the great tree of Thailand, and had to be "eliminated".
People who lived and worked closely with Fr Nicholas in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima can testified to this.
They include Rev Moris Meunier, a MEP missionary, who shared the mission with the first martyr in the Thai history. "At that time, persecution in the north was not as bad as in central Thailand,” he said, “especially in Phitsanulok,” a town about 300 km north of Bangkok.
Local Catholics were "so scared," the priest said, that they “buried their rosary beads underground” for fear of discovery,
Chandee Wapeso, a Catholic from Nakhon Ratchasima, remembers that "at the time of persecution, police officers and village leaders would break into the church and threaten Catholics to get them to denounce [and repudiate] their faith."
After his ordination on 24 January 1926 at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Bangkok, Fr Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung fought for the freedom of worship and the right of Christians to profess their faith. Because of this battle, he was accused of collaborationism with the French, defending colonialism and inciting Thais to turn against their own government.
Because of these unsubstantiated accusations, the Thai priest was arrested on 12 January 1941 at Santa Teresa parish and jailed on charges of spying for France. Prosecuted for "rebellion against the kingdom", he was sentenced to 15 years and sent to Bang Khwang Prison, in Bangkok.
Behind bars, he continued his missionary work, bringing to the faith and baptism at least 66 people. He eventually died in jail three years later, in 1944, of tuberculosis.
Mgr Rene-Marie-Joseph Perros, MEP missionary and apostolic vicar of Bangkok from 1947 to 1952, buried his remains in a crypt under the main altar of the Cathedral of the Assumption.
Starting in 1992, Bangkok Catholics pushed for his beatification, kicking off a process that ended in 2000 with the proclamation in St Peter's Square.
Other witnesses confirm the Thai priest’s hallowed life and choice of faith. Sister Cecelia Sunee Suparsri, for example, visited Fr Kitbamrung several times during his three-year imprisonment.
"During the years of anti-Christian persecution, police officers and administrators used threats to force us to give up our faith,” she said. “They said it was 'illegal' to be Catholic. They shut down various churches for many months and priests were forbidden to celebrate mass.”
Fr Kitbamrung fought for religious freedom and paid with his life for his action and missionary witness.
At present, most Thais are Buddhist (95 per cent). About 3 per cent are Muslim, and 0.5 per cent are Christians (equally divided between Protestants and Catholics), followed by smaller faith groups.