A Martyr Church: Cambodian Catholics Remember Their Heroes

Spanish Jesuit, Prefect of Battambang, on Following Christ in Asia

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ROME, JULY 27, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Father Enrique Figaredo Alvargonzález, prefect of Battambang, Cambodia, originally went to Cambodia searching to put a human face on his economics degree.

The 52-year-old Spanish Jesuit spoke with Where God Weeps, in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, about the Church in Cambodia and the suffering it has endured.

Q: Father, you entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Madrid when you were 20. When and why did you go to Cambodia?

Father Figaredo: I was seeking an encounter with God; I had it in my novitiate and when I was studying philosophy. However, when I finished my career in economics, my reasoning was that I wanted to put a face to those numbers that I had studied in my career, so I told my Provincial that I wanted to be a volunteer for refugees and I wanted to learn from those people. Because He is the suffering Christ in the world and I thought that the refugees were going to teach me what that Jesus, what that Christ was like. I was ready for anything and suddenly I received a letter from Bangkok, from the Jesuit Refugee Service: “We expect you here on September 1.” That letter arrived in May; I had yet to pass the final exams of my degree, so I was very nervous.

Q: Moreover, Cambodia was still at war.

Father Figaredo: Yes, yes, yes. I had to look at a map to see where it was. In the first photos I saw of Cambodians all had the croma, the article of clothing I am wearing. The croma is a scarf that has many uses in Cambodia; it’s used both for perspiration as well as for protection from the sun, as a towel, as a hammock for little ones to sleep in. If we had to choose a symbol of Cambodia to identify the Cambodian people, we would have to choose the croma. So, when I wear the croma, it is somewhat like taking Cambodia with me, as in those first photos I saw of Cambodian refugees, all had their croma and that really caught my attention.

Q: You arrived in Cambodia in 1985, when it was at war. What was your first impression?

Father Figaredo: First fear, I was dying of fear. When I went to the refugee camps it was an odyssey. One had to pass five military controls, and every time one was passed, things became darker: military men dressed in black, not smiling, asking for one’s papers in a violent way. When I arrived at the gate of the refugee camp, I shall never forget it, the level-crossing opened and we went in. Before me, all of a sudden, were the children, very badly dressed, barefoot but joyful! I recall much joy, life … life … life, life in plenitude although they were shut in in a refugee camp, let’s say, as prisoners of war.

Q: And what happened next?

--Father Figaredo: Then I went to visit them and I was received by Jhaimet, who was like their leader. I remember very well: He was standing with his crutches, he was missing a leg, the other one was badly wounded and he was missing an eye. I did not speak Cambodian, but there was a boy who translated for me. He said: “I have heard that you have come to help us,” and I, dying of fear, said, “Yes, yes." And he said: “Well don’t worry, I’ll tell you what we need.” At that instant I felt an immense peace, so to speak, Jhaimet was the voice of God who was saying to me: “Don’t worry; here we welcome you, we love you.”

Q: Cambodia is a country of Buddhist majority, so that in these refugee camps the majority of the people were of the Buddhist religion, no?

Father Figaredo: Yes, yes, they are Buddhists in the majority. Of course there are Catholics, but few. Moreover, the war was also responsible for [Catholics'] disappearance. Many people were killed: priests, bishops, everyone. In the camps there was a small remnant of Israel, of Christianity, of small families, often without the head of the family. The majority were widows and often, even that head of the family was lacking. They were children of Catholics but without formation and they also needed special help.

Q: In the ceremony of your installation as prefect of the Apostolic Prefecture there was a woman survivor who gave her testimony and spoke of the Church in Cambodia as “a Church that in the last 30 years has been a Church of tears and blood.” She was referring, obviously, to the persecution of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, to which you are now referring. The Church in Cambodia is a martyr Church.

Father Figaredo: Yes, it is a martyr Church. The Church in Cambodia was completely leveled. All our leaders, as I said earlier, bishops, priests, nuns, many catechists, were killed. Those who weren’t killed died of hunger or disease, and the community remained in a very bad state. Today we have places in Cambodia where we remember the martyrs. We remember them on the 7th and 8th of May. However, in remembering these martyrs we also grow in the faith, because they were people who died with a living faith. Bishop Paul Tep Im Sotha, first Apostolic Prefect of Battambang, whom I am succeeding, offered Mass, blessed everyone, two days before dying, and said: “Bad times are coming, take care of your faith, take care of one another’s faith.” The Mass ended, he left in a car and was killed. Bishop Joseph Chhmar Salas of Phnom Penh was appointed bishop four days before the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. His bishopric was in the rice fields.

Q: Which, we must explain, were like concentration camps, no?

Father Figaredo: Indeed, and in those concentration camps he worked as pastor and visited the Catholics. He prayed and celebrated the Eucharist with very many limitations, but he did so. He looked after his people as a poor person and died of hunger and illness, but at his death, his parents took up his pectoral cross and people gathered to pray around bishop Salas’ pectoral cross.

Q: A witness that must give you much strength now that, although -- thank God – it is no longer a martyr Church, it continues to be a Church in need.

Father Figaredo: That’s right. After Pol Pot, a pro-Vietnamese Communist regime came that made the people suffer a lot. It did not give liberty of religion and the people continued to endure and suffer in poverty. However, the memory of all our martyrs gives us much strength because we have seen them giving themselves in suffering and our Catholics have also gone through very much suffering and today they witness with their lives.

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The interview was conducted by Maria Lozano for the weekly radio and television program “Where God Weeps,” realized in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.

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