First conference on the history of Christianity in Cambodia held in Phnom Penh

The Royal University of Phnom Penh, Missions Étrangères de Paris, and local historians are behind the conference, which drew young researchers interested in a history that began five centuries ago, well before the French protectorate. For Fr Legnani, from PIME, it was important to remember all those who share “history and suffering with the Khmer people.”

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – The Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) last Thursday hosted the first official conference on the history of Christianity in Cambodia in cooperation with local scholars, a period that includes the years of Pol Pot's ideological madness.

Titled “500 years of friendship: the Church and the Kingdom of Cambodia”, the conference was organised by the history department at RUPP in cooperation with the Cambodian Historian Association and the Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP).

The missionary group has been present in the country long before Khmer Rouge persecution and today serves the reborn Cambodian Catholic Church.

About 70 people attended the conference, including many young students who followed the activities with great interest.

One of the speakers was Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler, apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, who, together with Buddhist Venerable Yon Seng Yeath, spoke about the relationship between Catholic and Buddhist religious leaders from 1860 to the present.

In his address on the history of the Church in Cambodia, Vincent Chrétienne, a missionary serving in the apostolic prefecture of Battambang, focused on a particularly important issue, namely sources. After the Khmer Rouge destroyed all the documents from the pre-Pol Pot era, the only sources that survived are those held in the MEP archives.

Several Cambodian scholars focused on various aspects of the five centuries of history, from the work against slavery to the relationship with the Khmer identity, including the question of biblical translations.

"I think this conference has achieved its purpose,” said Fr Franco Legnani, PIME missionary in Cambodia for the past 30 years, since it brought “together academics interested in studying and deepening the shared history of the Khmer people and the Church and sparked interest in continuing research”.

“We are a small community but it is important to talk about the roots of our history. It is true that, at some point, the Christian presence was too closely associated with the [French] protectorate, but it cannot be reduced to that experience,” Fr Legnani explained.

“It is also important to point out that we are not like many sects that came to the country only after the Pol Pot period,” he added. “We share history and suffering with the Khmer people.”

Among the Khmer speakers who talked about the history of the past 500 years, "Ieng Mouly, senior minister in charge of special missions and chairman of the National Aids Authority, noted that Christianity did not arrive in Cambodia with the French but was present already,” Fr Legnani said.

“Another local intellectual, Sor Sombang, founder of the Royal Academy and chairman of the Association of Cambodian Historians, pointed out that Cambodia was a French protectorate, not a colony, insisting on the need to use the right terms on occasions like this.”