On 14 April, 1975, under the bombs that announced the approach of the victorious Khmer Rouge, Msgr. Joseph Chhmar Salas was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Phnom Penh.
He was the first Cambodian bishop. Even though it was in ruins and prostrate, the local Church, heir to four centuries of missionary work, had to survive his death from hardship in September, 1977.
At present, the territory is divided between the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh and the apostolic Prefectures of Battambang and Kompong Cham, and is a Church that is still partly foreign. This is due to the large number of priests, religious and Sisters from abroad and the large number of expatriates who live and work there, some of which are employed in the numerous national and international activities and organizations.
By tradition and also constitutionally, Cambodia is Buddhist but the same foundation charter of the country allows freedom of religious belief and practice to a series of ethnic-social components. The recognition in 1990 of the “Christian Khmer”, brought about a real improvement in relations between Catholics and the government, after years of tension and suspicion. Catholics are still a small minority, just 25,000 but the Church “wants to be with the people, on the spot, so as to study their way of life and their culture and so understand how to inculturate our faith – as was emphasised some time ago by Msgr. Emile Destombes, Vicar Apostolic of Phnom Penh, who died on 28 January, last – . We are trying to celebrate the liturgy according to the Khmer modalities and we mean to bring evangelical values into society according to a Cambodian perspective”.
The government of Phnom Penh, through its minister for Cults and religions, distinguishes between Catholics and Protestants but does not completely acknowledge their different histories, presence or characteristics, even though the historical catholic presence in the country, with its martyrs, made Msgr. Enrique Figaredo, Prefect Apostolic of Battambang, declare that “Cambodia is a Buddhist-Catholic country”.
With a presence going back to the first encounter with missionaries four and a half centuries ago, Catholics have served in the fields of education, public health, development and culture with such commitment and respect that they gained the admiration of the people. Lastly, it must not be forgotten that at least 2,000 of the Khmer Rouge and with them many former officers of the guerrilla war (one example of this is the “Dutch Comrade”), converted down the years to Christianity.
The Catholics soon learned to express their faith by means of a constant effort to sharing, adaptation and dialogue. They also learned to coexist with a power that purports to administer the religious phenomenon by subjecting it to its ideological heritage (the party in power, that of the Cambodian People, is heir to communism of the quasi-Maoist type of the Khmer Rouge), also fearing to ignite internal contrasts or international pressure. However, since there is a massive presence of Catholic-inspired ONGs and missionary institutes, the Church of Cambodia is also and inevitably a Church open to the world bringing different experiences and values.