The miracle of Taom, the Christian village reborn after 40 years of persecution and neglect

» 09/05/2011 14:04

Hours from the city of Siem Rap, the village owes its existence to 30 people attracted to Christianity. In three years, the local neo-gothic church, which had been turned into a barn, was renovated and is now used for Sunday Mass. Fr Winarta, an Indonesian Jesuit, tells the story of the small community, a living example of faith in spite of poverty and isolation.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – The Catholic community of Taom (Battambang Diocese, Angkor Wat) can be reached from the city of Siem Rap after travelling for hours on a muddy road. Its life revolves around the fervent activities of its 29 members and 2 Indonesian Jesuit missionaries. AsiaNews recently visited the tiny impoverished village that was reborn last year after 40 years of oblivion and neglect when 30 locals were baptised.

Fr Stephanus Winarta SJ, from Java (Indonesia), is in charge of St John Parish Church in Siem Reap, and has followed the young community for some time. When he arrived there were no Catholics in Taom, he said. The St Mary Parish Church built by the French in the early 1900s had fallen into ruin under the Khmer Rouge regime, alternatively used as a barn and for human habitation.

“Then one day, a miracle occurred, and a few locals asked to be baptised,” the priest said. “In three years, 30 people became Catholic, participating in catechism courses organised by Fr Heribertus Bratasudarma, an indonesian Jesuit who has lived in cambodia for 11 years. In 2010, the bishop of Battambang baptised them and now they lead the community.

Fr Winarta said he was struck by their enthusiasm. In a few months, they salvaged the old church building and asked the young Jesuit to perform Mass there once a week.

Now the church bell tolls and Catholics can leave their fields for the church. During Mass, which includes singing, residents from neighbouring villages come as well. Two Japanese volunteers sent by the Jesuit Social Centre to care for the sick and teach children to read and write also join the service.

The spiritual rebirth of the village has led Fr Winarta to invite Mgr Giovanni D’Aniello, apostolic nuncio to Cambodia and Laos.

Siem Reap parish has about 500 members, 40 per cent of Vietnamese descent, plus a number of foreigners.

Overall, Cambodia has about 20,000 Catholics (0.15 per cent). Foreign missionaries and about ten local priests run the Church.

Since the 1990s, the Cambodian Church has been going through a renaissance. When the Khmer Rouges took power, all foreign missionaries were expelled.

The local clergy was wiped out as priests, nuns and men religious died under torture or from deprivation. (M. H.)