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Rock of rebuilding in Cambodia mourned

PHNOM PENH (UCAN): One of the rocks in the rebuilding of the Catholic community in Cambodia after the ruthless destruction and bloodshed of the Khmer Rouge regime, Bishop Emile Destombes, died in Phnom Penh on January 28 at the age of 80.

A member of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, Bishop Destombes was sent to Cambodia in 1964, little aware as a 29-year-old of the lifelong commitment he would make to the country.

As civil war worsened in the 1970s, he risked his life smuggling food to thousands of ethnic Vietnamese imprisoned as part of the Lon Nol government anti-Vietnamese campaign.

With hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Phnom Penh in the first half of the decade, the late bishop worked to provide them with housing and assistance, allowing them to ultimately become self-sufficient.

He would later recall standing in the streets of the city on 17 April 1975 to welcome the arrival of the Khmer Rouge—whom many believed would bring long-awaited peace.

“He told the story of celebrating with people for what they thought were liberators,” Australian Mercy Sister Denise Coghlan, the director of the Jesuit Refugee Service Cambodia, said.

“He was then just staggered to see people expelled from the capital on that very day,” she explained.

One of the last foreigners to leave the country, the bishop stayed in the French embassy for 15 days before finally being expelled.

“He didn’t want to leave Cambodia, but he was forced to by the Khmer Rouge,” Sister Coghlan recounted.

After 14 years teaching in France and later Brazil, the late bishop returned to the region in 1989, where he worked in the sprawling refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border.

In 1990, when the government returned Catholic churches and allowed the community to worship once again, he went to Phnom Penh and prepared the church for its first Mass in 15 years.

“When he came back to Cambodia, he always said that the Catholic Church had stayed alive through the laypeople, that despite all the starvation and everything they had been through, they kept it alive,” Sister Coghlan said.

He told Fides in 2007, “Naturally, during the period of terror, the flame of the Christian faith continued to burn in the hearts of the faithful although it could not be lived in the open.”

He was ordained a bishop in 1997 and became bishop of Phnom Penh in 2001.


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