As the Asia & Oceania Desk Officer at the General Secretariat of Caritas Internationalis for so many years, it’s my privilege to have been involved in the re-establishment of Caritas in Cambodia. As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Caritas Cambodia, let me give a personal account of how it all began.
At the outset, it should be said that Caritas was present in Cambodia even beyond twenty years back. Caritas work was undertaken by the local Church’s “Comite d’Entraide et d’Assistance” established in 1970 at the beginning of the Cambodian civil war. This was the predecessor of the present Caritas Cambodia. It was then affiliated to Caritas Internationalis in 1972 as Caritas Cambodia. Fr. Emile Destombes (now Bishop Destombes) was its national Director from 1972 to 1975. But when the Khmer Rouge came to power on 17 April 1975, Caritas Cambodia ceased operations.
1989 was the year I joined the General Secretariat of Caritas. One of the first persons I met was Msgr. Yves Ramousse, Director of BPAC (Bureau for the Promotion of Apostolate among Cambodians), who came to the Caritas office and requested us to re-launch Caritas in Cambodia. I remember very well what he said then: “New perspectives are opening up for Cambodia: nations are seeking, not without difficulty, a road to peace. Daily life for Cambodians is changing. It is fitting to sum up the situation and assess the possibilities it has to offer…”
Msgr. Ramousse’s visit led to a series of meetings. Then on 29 September 1989, Caritas Internationalis General Secretariat in collaboration with Secours Catholique-Caritas France organised a meeting in Paris, France. Participants were Msgr. Ramousse and his collaborators (Msgr. Lesouef, Fr. Destombes, Fr. Ponchaud and M.B. Depraz), M. De Brandt (Caritas Belgium), Mme. Etienne (Caritas Switzerland), Herman Herwig (Caritas Germany), Michael Whiteley (Australian Catholic Relief-now Caritas Australia), Denis Vienot, Luc Trouillard and Mme. Lecompte (Secours Catholique), Gerhard Meier (CI Secretary General) and myself. The meeting was aimed at exploring the possibility of re-establishing Caritas Cambodia.
One of the conclusions of that meeting was that the precarious situation of local Christians (approximately 1000 at that time) which make it difficult to speak of an on-site local Church, prevented the re-establishment of a national Caritas. Given these circumstances and in agreement with Msgr. Ramousse and his collaborators, as well as with the Caritas partners involved, we had agreed to the temporary set-up of a “Caritas Internationalis Antenna” (some kind of a liaison office) in Phnom Penh. This office had a two-fold function: liaison with the local civil authorities and coordinating platform for Catholic NGOs and other agencies involved. It also functioned as the pastoral animation base at the service of the local Church members. Upon recommendation of Msgr. Ramousse, Fr. Emile Destombes, MEP, was appointed as the Caritas Internationalis official delegate for Cambodia based in Phnom Penh.
On 8 – 15 Feb. 1990, an official Caritas Internationalis delegation (composed of Gerhard Meier, Luc Trouillard and Fr. Destombes) visited Cambodia and facilitated the setting up of the “Caritas Internationalis Antenna”. This visit also made it possible to establish the broad lines of cooperation with the Ministries for Social Welfare, Health and Education in Cambodia. The Caritas delegation signed letters of intent with the mentioned ministries on 14 February 1990 for Caritas to undertake short term emergency actions as per the priorities noted by the respective authorities. The letters of intent also indicated the possibility for future long-term activities. Most importantly, the agreement in principle for the setting up of a Caritas Antenna with Fr. Destombes as its Director was also accepted by the government.
On 22 March 1990, Fr. Destombes returned to Phnom Penh and formally established the Antenna. This date should be considered as the formal re-establishment of Caritas in Cambodia.
Since then many significant events have taken place.
Official recognition of the Christian religion by the Government followed on 4 April 1990. And on Easter Sunday (15 April 1990), Fr. Destombes celebrated the first Holy Mass in Phnom Penh (after 15 years) in a cinema made available by the government. Government officials and Buddhist dignitaries were on hand to witness this event.
Soon after, Msgr. Ramousse returned to Cambodia as Caritas representative. Some MEP (Missions Estrangères de Paris) missionaries were also able to go back and work in Cambodia under the Caritas cover. Msgr. Ramousse was later named Bishop of Phnom Penh and became Caritas Cambodia President. It should also be said that Caritas paved the way for the re-establishment of the Catholic Church in Cambodia.
I would like to add that in the contract of agreement signed between Caritas and Bishop Ramousse, it was stipulated that Secours Catholique was entrusted to act as the liaison agency. I had the pleasure of working with Michel Roy and later Aloysius John (both of Secours Catholique) in the Antenna process. To this day, Secours Catholique ably continues to accompany Caritas Cambodia.
I don’t recall any official information regarding the shift from Caritas Internationalis Antenna to Caritas Cambodia. This shift should have taken place after an evaluation, which was to take place one year after its establishment. But the agreed evaluation didn’t take place. Bishop Ramousse had enough reasons then for requesting postponement of the evaluation. Nevertheless, the long over due evaluation finally took place in November 1995 (undertaken by Secours Catholique and Caritas Bangladesh) with good results and substantial recommendations.
I wish to highlight one of the important recommendations: the Khmerisation of Caritas Cambodia. Caritas partners involved were pleased with how Caritas Cambodia seriously took up and implemented the recommendations subsequently. I would like to add that today Caritas Cambodia stands proudly as Khmer Caritas, the socio-pastoral instrument of the local Church in Cambodia.
I end this account with the information that Caritas Cambodia was re-admitted as full member of Caritas Internationalis at the 17th General Assembly on 7-12 July 2003.