I visited Cambodia for the first time in 2007 upon the invitation of an American couple, the Mussomelis. The Honorable Joseph “Joe” Mussomeli was the dashing, intelligent and engaging US ambassador to the country at that time, and his beautiful wife Sharon, also an embassy official and a recent convert to Catholicism from an Episcopalian background. She joined the church while in Manila some months before they transferred to this new post.

Sharon showed me and our seminarian friend, Raymond Ambray (now priest), around the country, from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. With the fervor of a convert, Sharon included in her touristic information of the country some details about the history, the present situation and the challenges facing Catholics in a time of restoration and recovery from the country’s tumultuous history.

I had a primary agendum in my mind when I accepted the couple’s invitation. More than history and landmarks, I was interested to trace the footsteps of Bro. Richie Fernando, a Jesuit scholastic who died in 1996 in the country, when he tried to prevent a disconsolate former soldier from exploding a grenade in a room full of students.

During the struggle, the Cambodian dropped the grenade he was holding and it exploded right at the back of Richie who took all the shrapnel thus saving both the man and the others in the building. Richie instantly died, believed by many today as a “martyr of charity,” one who sacrificed himself for love of Christ and his neighbors.

Not having met Richie while alive (although I have seen a photo of him during his apostolate in the area which would become my first parish), a short video documentary on his life became one of my favorites, leaving me teary-eyed each time I watched it. One day I hoped to be more familiar with the details I have seen on the film. And so it happened that when I asked Sharon about it, she knew the Jesuit house and technical school where the drama transpired. She was also a friend to some of the Jesuits there.

So I counted myself very fortunate to visit Richie’s mission station, Banteay Prieb vocational school. With a young Jesuit priest who knew Fernando well as a guide, our group retraced the highlights of his life and his death. I saw the shattered tiles on the floor of the building where the grenade fell, and where Richie’s blood was shed. The area was cordoned off and was considered a sacred spot by the residents.

I prayed in the same chapel where the religious community prayed and noticed with pride a framed photograph of Richie adorning the wall, as if prophesying the moment his sacrifice would be known and recognized by the whole church. When I told the Jesuit guide that there were talks in Manila about this young man’s possible canonization, he laughed and talked about the mischiefs Richie got into when he was with them.

Finally our group paid respects to the memory of Bro. Richie Fernando in front of the stone monument (in traditional Cambodian style) where his blood, scraped from the floor and covered in a white cloth and placed in an urn, was ceremonially interred at about the same time when his funeral was being held in the Jesuit novitiate and retreat house in the Philippines. This was the climax of my first visit to Cambodia. It was like an inspiring pilgrimage to the place where Richie Fernando discovered “where (his) heart was… with Jesus Christ.”[1]

Today the vocational school is already closed. The building where the Jesuit died was demolished by the government in March 2021 to give way to a new rehabilitation center. The shattered tiles and the stone memorial, with the wooden house where the Jesuit lived have been transferred to a new site.[2]

Filipino Catholics have a special reason to love Cambodia. While our first saint Lorenzo Ruiz was martyred in Japan, and our second, Pedro Calungsod, in the island of Guam, this Filipino future saint gave his steadfast witness of mercy and love just a short distance from the center of the city of Phnom Penh.


A Difficult Start

The earliest Christian missionary to visit Cambodia was Jesuit priest Fernando Mendez Pinto who arrived in the country in 1554 en route to Japan; nothing much is known of his evangelistic activity. In 1555, the first missionary attempt at conversions was made by Portuguese Dominican priest Gaspar de (da) Cruz, who had interacted with the king and lived in Court while ministering to Portuguese merchants. De Cruz complained that the Cambodians were difficult to convert because their lives were centered on the king and on Buddhism. Furthermore, the people were prone to pervasive superstitions.[3]

About the same period, Portuguese Dominicans and Franciscans came from Malacca. One of these, Dominican Silvestro de Azevedo stayed for a protracted period and laid the foundations of the Catholic church in the country, becoming the first missionary among the Khmer.[4] In spite of the hardship of imprisonment, he succeeded in converting some while in jail, about 500 Japanese, Javanese and Chinese inmates. The priest later entered into the good graces of the king who allowed him to preach and to build a church with royal support. He went on to convert some Buddhist monks and some Cambodian lay people before he was martyred in 1576. His work was thus interrupted by this tragic event.

Jesuits from Goa, India and two Spanish Dominicans from the Philippines followed to start their missions. One of the Dominicans, Fr. Bastide, was slain in 1588, attesting to the difficulty of planting the church in this predominantly Buddhist base.[5]

For most of the seventeenth century, no foreign Christian missionary activity was recorded among the Khmer people. However some Japanese Catholics, fleeing persecution from their own country, settled in Cambodia. At times they received support from the Jesuits. A diverse ethnic mix of believers, Japanese, Vietnamese and Portuguese, formed a small community around 1660.[6]

In 1665, a priest of the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP), Fr. Louis Chevreul arrived in Colompé (Phnom Penh) and Pinhalu. He found several groups of refugees, among them Christians, from Makassar (Portuguese driven away from neighboring Indonesia) and Cochin China (Vietnamese fleeing persecution), and the few missionaries caring for them. Chevreul was caught, imprisoned and later released by the Portuguese for violating their rights of patronato real. Three more MEP priest followed between 1680-1682, but due to wars and intrigues, were forced to depart for Cochin China (Vietnam).[7]

Since the first missions failed to convert native Cambodians, for two centuries, whatever missionary initiatives there had been in the country were focused on foreigners – the Portuguese and the Vietnamese. Another MEP priest, Fr. Nicholas Levasseur arrived in 1768 and would be the first missionary to specialize on the apostolate to the native Khmer population. He truly loved the Cambodians that he took pains in studying the Khmer language with the help of Buddhist monks, and with this new skill, he translated a catechism and other religious literature into the local language.

Levasseur also compiled a Khmer–Latin dictionary which was later translated into a Khmer-French dictionary. Ho Jin Jun writes that Levasseur also started a seminary for priestly training of candidates to the ministry. But upon his death in 1777, nobody took his place. A statistical report in 1842 showed that there were 222 Cambodian Catholics and four churches in the land.

The 19th century saw the creation of an Apostolic Prefecture for Phnom Penh which included some believers from Laos and Vietnam. Many Vietnamese Catholics later arrived in Cambodia, fleeing persecution in their own land. In 1924, the Apostolic Prefecture became an Apostolic Vicariate, encompassing the political boundaries of the country.

Ethnic Vietnamese increasingly dominated the Catholic population, making Cambodians identify the church with the Vietnamese and with the French colonialists who favored them. And as tensions mounted between Cambodia and Vietnam, this did not enhance the Khmer’s view of Catholics.


The life of the Catholic community was adversely affected by ensuing conflicts in the 20th century – the Cambodian Civil War, the Khmer Rouge catastrophe and the Cambodian-Vietnamese war.[8] In my visit to Cambodia in 2007, my host Sharon Mussomeli shared with me historical facts as well as interesting anecdotes pertaining to the anguished condition of Catholics in the period specifically under the Khmer Rouge.

The Scourge of the Khmer Rouge

Most people today generally know the infamous Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) headed by the Maoist leader Pol Pot through documentaries and award-winning films like “The Killing Fields.” What happened in Cambodia was not mere classical genocide but an autogenocide,[9] in which the perpetrators of the murders were of the same ethnicity as the victims. Millions of innocent Cambodians, including the intelligentsia, the clergy, and believers of various faiths, perished in the so-called “killing fields” and were hastily buried in mass graves scattered around the country.

Under the Khmer Rouge, the fragile structures of the Catholic church in Cambodia easily went crashing down, as its foreign missionaries were expelled and the remaining native bishops, priests and religious were either killed or sent to await brutal death in labor camps. This dismal period gave the local church many 20th century martyrs, some of them are now in the process of canonization by the church, a move affirmed by Pope Francis himself.[10]

Foremost among these martyrs is Bishop Joseph Chmar Salas, the first Cambodian bishop and Apostolic Vicar of Phnom Penh, who died of starvation and disease in the labor camp in Taing Kauk in 1977. It is estimated that the tiny Catholic community lost 50% of its members, and in some villages when missionaries arrived after restrictions were lifted in the 1990s, they found only one remaining Catholic.[11]

Ms. Mussomeli brought me to the site of the former Notre Dame Cathedral, where no trace of the once majestic Gothic church remained. The Khmer Rouge was said to order the Catholics to demolish the church brick by brick and throw the debris to the sea until at last, there was no visible reminder of their spiritual center;[12] the ordeal adding psychological pain to the physical oppression already endured. The metal from the building was used to produce nails for the war effort. Most other church buildings suffered a similar fate except for some very remote churches used as barns or stables or military outposts.[13] Without churches and priests, the Catholics kept their faith alive through private prayers at home and in the silence of the rice fields, a situation that would last for many years. While the cathedral was obliterated, the former bishop’s residence, appropriated by the government, still stands with its iconic gates designed with crosses.


After the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, the surviving Catholics, as also their Buddhist neighbors, were still not allowed to resume their interrupted spiritual activities under the Communist Vietnamese sponsored government from 1979-1989. When this regime fell, Cambodia recognized the presence of Christians in the society in 1990.[14] The missionaries were then allowed to return once more.

An inspiring story in a mission magazine I read long ago told of a missionary cycling around the Cambodian villages and greeting people in French. Since the Catholics remembered their priests spoke that language and were at least familiar with it, they would certainly reply back or manifest some recognition. This was one way the missionaries discovered the existence of the few remaining believers in the country. They then heard their stories of perseverance in the midst of persecution.

The surviving Catholics told stories of how they remained steadfast in their faith. They narrated how they gathered in secret to worship or pray without priests. Consecrated Hosts were smuggled from Vietnam in film canisters, so the faithful could receive Communion. Catholic families prayed together, and the practice of kissing the cross of their deceased bishop Msgr. Salas, which was secretly passed around,  became a sign of unity and hope.[15]

The Light of Easter

When Catholic missionaries returned in 1989, their primary involvement was not religious but humanitarian; the church came as an NGO. A few priests arrived first and tried to establish contacts with what remained of the Catholic community. They could not yet openly evangelize but they were welcomed as aid workers. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Sisters were invited by the government to start a home for the sick and they came accompanied by an Italian priest, Fr. Toni Vendramin. The priest recalled how Masses were first celebrated in private homes since there were no church buildings anywhere.[16]

Bishop Yves Ramouse also returned to the country, preceded by French MEP priests. Msgr. Ramouse was the former Vicar Apostolic of Phnom Penh who hastily ordained his successor bishop Salas in 1975 before the Khmer Rouge entered the capital. Expelled with other foreigners, Msgr. Ramouse spent his time ministering to the Cambodians of the diaspora, under the direction of Rome. Shortly after setting foot again in Cambodia, he was re-appointed to his former position as bishop of Phnom Penh.[17]

For Cambodian Catholics, Easter of 1990 commemorated not only the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ but also the rebirth of their faith community. It was highly symbolic that at the Easter Vigil, they were finally able to celebrate the Holy Mass again freely in a rented theater, after fifteen years of suppressed religious expression. There were about 3,000 Catholics living in the country at that time.[18]

In 1993 the country adopted a new constitution that enshrined the right to freedom of religion, signaling further hope for the still beleaguered and fearful church. In 1994, Cambodia renewed diplomatic ties with the Holy See. This development assured the advent of more foreign missionaries who would volunteer to help the reconstruction of the structures of the church. In 1995, Fr. Pierre Sophal Tonlop was the first Cambodian priest ordained, the first in 22 years.[19] In 2001, the local church celebrated the ordination of a further four local priests. Vocations are rare but generous souls came forward desirous to serve the church and the society.[20]

Rising from the Ashes

How does a tiny, struggling band of Christians face the challenge of re-grouping, rebuilding, and rebirth? The Khmer Rouge and the Communist regime following it tried their best to eradicate traces of religious sentiments in the hearts of the citizens, regardless of whether they belong to the dominant Buddhist faith, or to the minority Muslim and Christian faiths. Traditional customs were targeted for eradication in favor of purely materialistic and atheistic principles. There was also a noticeable breakdown in the family and relational values since the regimes promoted distrust and violence even among relatives.

The first aim of the early missionaries and the handful of remaining faithful was to recover the church’s losses, to rebuild and start again from scratch. Considering the dilapidation of the church buildings and structures, it was reasonable to expect a massive campaign to recover property, construct churches and entice new converts. However the Cambodian church’s approach was a balance of ingenuity and humility that ensured its survival and respectability in a new environment. It decided against a notion of rebuilding in stones. The more pressing concern would be pastoral. They wanted to build the people, to encourage reconciliation, and to form the community first of all.

The local church of the past had a very visible presence. They had cathedrals, churches, academic centers and institutions. The church emerging from the catacombs of destruction would be a church of people, relationships, supportive communities, and not anymore of edifices or bureaucracies. Cambodian church leaders and members in fact declared a moratorium on constructions that would last nearly a decade in the early phases of their rebirth.[21]

In the vision of the Cambodian Catholics, their church would be a community of believers, disciples and witnesses. To this end, the church endeavored to found small Christian communities where Catholics feel at home to live their faith. Today, these small communities form the backbone of the three ecclesiastical territories in the country. In each of the communities, they have ministries for catechism, worship and service. Catholics are trained to jointly plan liturgical celebrations, to teach the faith to young people and converts, and to help the most needy in the community.

Catholics in Cambodia make use of the local culture in order to faithfully and effectively spread the faith. Bishop Schmitthaeusler, Apostolic Vicar of Phnom Penh, remembers how when he first arrived in the country at Christmastime, the people were impressed by the staging of the Christmas play. This gave him the idea of evangelization through art. Art runs through the veins of the people, who have a natural talent for singing and dancing.

The Church also now seeks to promote understanding with members of other denominations and religions, especially the majority Buddhist adherents of the country who must feel that they are respected and accepted. The Bible was translated into the local Khmer language, further enhancing the link with the local culture. While open to help coming from outside, the Church in Cambodia is also willing to share from the richness of its own experience and example, including the experience of simplicity and suffering. In Cambodia, it is often repeated: no one is so poor as to have nothing to give; no one is so rich as to have nothing to receive.

While interest in the church has not been dramatic or swift, some Cambodians expressed their desire for conversion. The church adopted a catechumenate program where aspirants were made to undergo catechetical formation for at least two years before being able to embrace fully the Catholic faith. In this period, the catechumen is exposed to the whole Catholic faith, Biblical teachings, church traditions and rituals, and participation in the church’s social activities.

Converts are attracted to the faith by the respectability of the church in Cambodian society, its commitment to the works of charity and human improvement, and to the palpable love Christians show to each other and to those outside of the fold. Those who convert from Buddhism experience difficulties within their families due to opposition and the impression that Christianity is a foreign religion.


The Cambodian religious landscape is dominated by Theravada Buddhism, which commands the adherence of 90% of the population of about 17 million, the majority belonging to the Khmer ethnicity. However in practice, the Buddhist faith is often mixed with a strong animist tendency that is so much alive in traditional Cambodian religiosity. Catholics form part (about 0.2%) of the 5% who are Christians, while Muslims comprise another 5% of the citizens.[22]

Christianity’s growth is noticeably rapid among Protestants who are generally more enthusiastic and zealous in evangelizing and whose path to baptism is shorter than the catechumenate established by the Catholic Church for its converts, as mentioned above. Most Catholics are also of Vietnamese descent, and since there are existing complexities in Vietnamese – Khmer relations stemming from their bitter past history, the church becomes a forum for discussion of issues and differences.

Catholics, numbering 20,000 (statistics from around 2015 and so on; some estimates about 75,000) believers are currently divided under three administrative regions (none of which is a diocese) – one apostolic vicariate (Phnom Penh) and two apostolic prefectures (Battambang and Kampong Cham). Each of these territories is served by at least 3 diocesan priests, supported by religious priests and sisters. In 2022, Kompong Cham received Cambodia’s first native leader in the person of Fr. Pierre Suon Hangly, who was appointed Apostolic Prefect. Fr. Hangly is the first native Cambodian at the helm of the church since after the Khmer Rouge era.[23]

Process is underway for the beatification of 35 Cambodian martyrs of the Pol Pot and Khmer regime.[24] The list of martyrs includes Bishop Chmar Salas, his brother Fr. Chmar Salem and Msgr. Tep Im, the first Apostolic Prefect of Battambang, as well as lay and clergy, French missionaries and ethnic Vietnamese monks. These were either killed, or died by starvation or disease.[25]

Today, the Catholic Church is recognized in Cambodia as a force for good, showing concern for the welfare of the poor and for the unity of people in the communities they serve. In 2022, The Vicar Apostolic of Phnom Penh, Bishop Olivier Michel Marie Schmitthaeusler (MEP) was recognized by the Cambodian Government for his contribution to society. The bishop received the “Grand Order of National Merit” at an event at the Saint Paul Institute in Takeo Province in southern Cambodia.[26] The bishop credited his priests, religious and missionary collaborators for the accolade, since they were the ones at the helm of service in the fields of education, social development, arts and culture. The bishop has been given Cambodian citizenship. Caritas Cambodia plays a crucial role in the church’s continuous engagements with society.[27]

The small Cambodian church that has experienced a painful crucifixion, while remaining faithful to Christ, is now on its way to his glorious Resurrection!

[1] JesCom TV, Greater Love (2018), (Youtube video), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ab-F3mpWfEQ  

[2] See Matt Surrusco and Keat Soriththeavy (2021), https://vodenglish.news/among-cambodias-war-wounded-a-brother-found-his-vocation/

[3] See Ho Jin Jun, A History of Christian Churches in Cambodia (2020), https://www.academia.edu/45144817/A_History_of_Christian_Churches_in_Cambodia.  In my research, this article, written by a Protestant, gave a more substantial view of the early Catholic missions to Cambodia than recent Catholic sources which merely provided sketches or truncated accounts.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See The Catholic Church In Cambodia (n.d.),  https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cambodia-catholic-church  

[6] See Ho Jin Jun

[7] The Catholic Church In Cambodia

[8] See Ray Cavanaugh (2021), https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2021/03/17/catholicism-in-cambodia-a-small-number-of-faithful-in-a-land-recovering-from-autogenocide/

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Cambodia’s 35 Martyrs to Be Blessed through Pope Francis’ Love (2015),  https://www.asianews.it/news-en/Cambodia%E2%80%99s-35-martyrs-to-be-blessed-through-Pope-Francis%E2%80%99-love-34611.html

[11] Aid to the Church in Need (2020), Catholic Church in Cambodia: Thirty years of rebirth

[12] Mussomeli’s story was confirmed in this article: Philip Shenon, “Phnom Penh’s Faded Beauty,” New York Times, June 25, 1995, https://www.nytimes.com/1995/06/25/travel/phnom-penh-s-faded-beauty.html (accessed on May 4, 2022).

[13] See https://www.licas.news/2021/10/25/lost-church-in-cambodia-rediscovered/

[14] See https://acninternational.org/catholic-church-in-cambodia-thirty-years-of-rebirth/

[15]Vanquished in the 70s, Catholic Church Still on the Mend,” Phnom Penh Post, March 25, 2005,

https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/vanquished-70s-catholic-church-still-mend (accessed on April 15, 2022).

[16] Giorgio Bernardelli, “Fr Vendramin, the first priest to return to Phnom Penh after Pol Pot, has died,” Asia News, July 13, 2021, https://www.asianews.it/news-en/Fr-Vendramin,-the-first-priest-to-return-to-Phnom-Penh-after-Pol-Pot,-has-died-53630.html (accessed on May 4, 2022).

[17] Msgr. Yves Ramousse, the French bishop expelled by Khmer Rouge, has died

by Bernardo Cervellera, Asia News, Feb 27, 2021, https://www.asianews.it/news-en/Msgr.-Yves-Ramousse,-the-French-bishop-expelled-by-Khmer-Rouge,-has-died-52464.html (accessed on May 4, 2022).

[18] Christophe Lafontaine, “The Catholic Church in Cambodia: a Small Community Comes into Its Own,” Aid to the Church in Need United States, April 24, 2020, https://www.churchinneed.org/the-catholic-church-in-cambodia-a-small-community-comes-into-its-own/ (accessed on May 4, 2022).

[19] Aid to the Church in Need, April 27, 2020 Catholic Church in Cambodia: Thirty years of rebirth

[20] Phnom Penh Post, Vanquished in the 70s, Catholic Church still on the mend, 25 March 2005


[21] Dennis Coday, “Catholic Church, Decimated by War, Tries to Rebound,” National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000, https://natcath.org/NCR_Online/archives2/2000b/063000/063000l.htm (accessed on May 4, 2022).

[22] Ray Cavanaugh, “Catholicism in Cambodia, A Few Faithful in a Land Recovering from Autogenocide,” The Catholic World Report, March 17, 2021, https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2021/03/17/catholicism-in-cambodia-a-small-number-of-faithful-in-a-land-recovering-from-autogenocide/ (accessed May 4, 2023).

[23] See https://www.ucanews.com/news/cambodian-catholics-get-first-native-leader-after-khmer-rouge-era/98958

[24] See Cambodia’s 35 Martyrs to Be Blessed through Pope Francis’ Love

[25] See Cambodian Catholics look for martyrs among genocide victims (2016), https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/en-espanol/sdhoy-cambodian-catholics-look-for-martyrs-among-2016jul14-story.html

[26] See Cambodia rewards Church for its contribution to society (2022), https://www.khmertimeskh.com/1042123/cambodia-rewards-church-for-its-contribution-to-society/

[27] See https://www.caritas.org/where-caritas-work/asia/cambodia/

written by: ourparishpriest 2023