01/29/2016, 20.13
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Church mourns Mgr Destombes, mission pioneer amid the ruins of Pol Pot’s regime

Funeral services for the Vicar Emeritus to Phnom Penh will be celebrated tomorrow. A memorial mass is scheduled for the evening. The faithful hold prayer vigil over the body. A MEP missionary born in France, he led the rebirth of the Church in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge tragedy. He presided over the historic Easter Mass of 1990 in the capital in front of 3,000 worshippers.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – Cambodia’s Catholic Church is in mourning after Mgr Émile Destombes, apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh from 2001 to 2010, passed away yesterday at the age of 80 from heart problems.

Expelled by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 along with all foreign missionaries, he was the first priest who was able to return to the country in the late 1980s and celebrate, on Easter Sunday 1990, the historic "Resurrection Mass" in front of 3,000 worshippers.

Funeral services will be held tomorrow, January 30, at 9 am. A memorial Mass is scheduled for the evening. Since yesterday, scores of faithful have been taking turns to pray over the body.

Mgr Émile Destombes was born on 15 August 1935 in Roncq, northern France, and was ordained priest on 21 December 1961 as a member of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (Société des Missions étrangères de Paris, MEP).

The young priest left for Cambodia in March 1965. After a studying Khmer, he began teaching philosophy at the minor seminary in Phnom Penh. From 1965 to 1967, he also headed a student dormitory in the Cambodian capital.

At that time, the country began to unravel, eventually paving the way for the rise of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot whose bloody regime orchestrated the death of a quarter of the population between 1975 and 1979.

During the country’s civil war from 1970 to 1975, Fr Destombes headed the Committee to help the victims of war, set up by his MEP confrère Fr Yves Ramousse.

When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, he found refuge – like all remaining foreigners – at the French Embassy, where he remained between 17 to 30 April, uncertain as to whether he would survive or not. At the end of the month, he was deported.

Back in Paris, he began teaching theology to MEP seminarians, and worked for Échange France-Asie whose task was to provide information about Asia and its churches to French people.

In 1979, he moved to Brazil, where he remained for ten years as a priest in Palmeirópolis, in the State of Goiás.

In 1989, after the Vietnamese pulled out from Cambodia, he travelled first to Bangkomk, in Thailand, where he met with Cambodian refugees. Soon after, he returned to the country, to the old mission, as a representative of Caritas Internationalis.

For a year, he was the only foreign priest living in Cambodia. During that time, he was able to obtain the official recognition of the Catholic Church by the new government in Phnom Penh.

This achievement was marked with a solemn Mass, the first since 1975, held on Easter Day in 1990 and attended by thousands of faithful.

Over the following years, he worked to rebuild the Cambodia’s Catholic community, which had been largely decimated by the Khmer Rouge during their years in power.

In 1995, Mgr Destombes took part in in the ordination of Fr Pierre Sophal Tonlop, the first Cambodian priest in 22 years. Two years later, in 1997, he was appointed coadjutor bishop of Phnom Penh.

After the resignation of Mgr Ramousse in 2000, he became apostolic vicar in the capital in 2001, a post he held until 2010, when he was replaced by a younger prelate, Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler.

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