Reborn from the ashes, Catholic Church in Cambodia joins battle against human trafficking

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

The 6th National Interreligious Forum Against Human Trafficking took place in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, at the end of September, an initiative that aims to unite the country’s various forces in the fight against this terrible scourge. “Do not use Cambodia as a destination for human trafficking” was the central motto of this meeting, which was attended by the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, and representing the Catholic Church, the Jesuit, Bishop Enrique Figaredo Alvargonzalez, Prefect Apostolic of the city of Battambang.

Monsignor Enrique Figaredo has dedicated his life to helping people maimed by landmines and actively cooperates with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, an entity that received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. As the Fides News Agency points out, “religious harmony as a way of promoting individual well-being and social security as well as reinforcing the spirit of unity to combat criminal phenomena such as trafficking in human beings” is one of the main aims of the Cambodian authorities. Hence the call for a “fruitful and full collaboration” between the Catholic Church and other religious communities, an urgency that incidentally was reiterated by the priests, religious and lay Catholics who participated in the aforementioned conference alongside Buddhist monks and members of other confessions.

The success of the initiative was such that the Cambodian government decided to establish, from 2023 onwards, every August 20th as the day of the National Interreligious Forum Against Human Trafficking, “urging religious communities to gather in the provinces, districts, cities or villages to pool resources and offer cooperation, evaluating lines of action and common results.”

The phenomenon of human trafficking is very present in Cambodia. It has grown substantially in recent years and extends to neighboring countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, China and Taiwan. Particularly serious, for example, is the problem of child sex tourism – with children often held captive, beaten and forced into prostitution. According to UNICEF, more than 35% of Cambodia’s 15,000 prostitutes are under the age of 16.

Proof of the excellent interreligious relationship was the homage paid last May by the Buddhist leaders of Cambodia to a bishop of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris. Olivier Schmitthaeusler, Vicar Apostolic of Phnom Penh, was recognized as a “great Buddhist supporter” for the help he has given to local communities. Seng Somony, secretary and spokesman for the Ministry of Cults and Religions, presented him with a certificate of honor issued by the country’s Supreme Buddhist Council.

More recently, on October 1, on the occasion of the feast of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, patroness of the missions, Monsignor Olivier Schmitthaeusler – during a Eucharist celebrated in honor of the new apostolic prefect of Kampong Cham, Monsignor Pierre Suon Hangly – gave thanks to God for the appointment of this “first indigenous bishop of Cambodia,” a few months after the ordination of yet another local priest. “It’s a joy to see the local church grow again,” he said.

Remember that in the 1950s the Holy See estimated that there were around 120,000 Catholics in Cambodia, many of them of Portuguese descent. Well known were the Dias and Monteiro families, who played important roles in 19th century Cambodian society.

Constantine Monteiro, on an official trip to Singapore in 1850, wrote an article about Cambodia entitled “Notes to accompany the map of Cambodia” that would be published in the magazine Indian Archipelago and East India in 1851.

Another Portuguese person, Col de Monteiro (1839 -1908) became secretary to King Norodom and minister of the Navy. Some of his descendants served as ministers during Prince Sihanouk’s rule. However, with the coming to power of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and the long civil war that followed, the Catholic community was practically decimated and it was only in the 1990s, with the end of the conflict and the return of the missionaries, that the Church would be reborn from the ashes.

Today, Christians make up less than one percent of Cambodia’s 17 million people – some 20,000 Catholics live in three church jurisdictions. Some descendants of the Monteiro family still live in Cambodia, but most have spread around the world, thus escaping the murderous rage of the Khmer Rouge.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Cambodia and do missionary work there. The Dominican friar Gaspar de Cruz tried in 1556 to convert Cambodians to Christianity, unfortunately without success. The Capuchin friar António da Madalena was the first European to visit the ruins of Angkor, in 1586, and tell the world about them. During that period, there were many Portuguese who lived in Cambodia, as merchants, adventurers or missionaries, always facing strong resistance from rival Chinese merchants and Cambodian Buddhist devotees. Many of them were massacred.

(Photo: Joaquim Magalhães de Castro)