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Catholics remember Khmer Rouge victims amid war-crimes trial

Written By vibykhmer on Friday, May 15, 2009 | 4:18 AM

Bishop Emile Destombes, apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, blesses what used to be the bed of the late Bishop Joseph Chhmar Salas
You Prakort, younger sister of Bishop Joseph Chhmar Salas, tells the story of her brother’s death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge at a memorial service on May 7 at Taing Kauk Parish. Behind her is a picture of her brother

May 14, 2009

KOMPONG THOM, Cambodia (UCAN) -- As the U.N.-backed trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders continues in the capital, Catholics gathered to remember a bishop, priests and laypeople killed by the brutal regime about 30 years ago.
About 40 people from across Cambodia came together on May 7 for a special Mass at Taing Kauk, 100 kilometers north of Phnom Penh, a place Cambodian Catholics call Memorial Place or Land of Hope. Here they prayed on a day specially dedicated to remembering all the Catholics who died during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror which ended in 1979.

Bishop Emile Destombes, apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, said in his homily that they were there to remember Khmer Bishop Joseph Chhmar Salas, former apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, and all the priests, brothers and sisters who died during the religious persecution then.

Bishop Destombes gave thanks to God for their missionary work, which laid the foundations of the Catholic Church in Cambodia. "We have to continue this mission," to be "witnesses of Jesus" in Cambodia, he said.

Om Lan, 63, a Catholic living in Taing Kauk, told UCA News he was very proud of Bishop Salas. "Because of him we have a Catholic community here," he said.

According to Father Gnet Viney, a Khmer priest, the local Church chose this place as a memorial site as it is closely connected with the lives of Bishop Salas and some priests. They were forced to leave Phnom Penh Khmer when Khmer Rouge soldiers marched into the city on April 17, 1975, and eventually came to the Taing Kauk area.

According to You Prakort, a younger sister of Bishop Salas who also attended the memorial, the new arrivals in the area faced immediate discrimination by the local people. She said the Khmer Rouge forced her brother and his priests into hard labor by working in the fields. Bishop Salas later died from a combination of exhaustion and malnutrition, she said.

The prelate reportedly died in Taing Kauk in September 1977 at the age of 39.

In the Land of Hope compound, the church has erected a cross dedicated to Bishop Salas and reconstructed the hut where he and his priests used to live and celebrate Mass, said Father Viney.

Thirty years after the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, alleged surviving leaders of the regime are now being tried for crimes against humanity by a joint U.N. Cambodian government court.In his Easter message, Monsignor Enrique Figaredo, apostolic prefect of Battambang prefecture, said the trial will conclude an era in Cambodian history. "Any justice from the trials may not impact much on peoples' lives now, but at least we will be able to look toward the future with some healing of past hurts and injustices," he said.

"We can hope that those who act with impunity now, will be brought to justice," he added.


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