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Cambodian Catholics get first native leader after Khmer Rouge era

Father Pierre Suon Hangly has been installed apostolic prefect to Kampong Cham, one of the country's three ecclesiastical jurisdictions

Father Pierre Suon Hangly, the new apostolic prefect of Kampong Cham, at a felicitation during the installation ceremony led by Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler (MEP), the apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, on Sept. 11

Father Pierre Suon Hangly, the new apostolic prefect of Kampong Cham, at a felicitation during the installation ceremony led by Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler (MEP), the apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, on Sept. 11. (Photo supplied)

Published: October 02, 2022 03:10 AM GMT

Updated: October 03, 2022 05:00 AM GMT

A native Cambodian was installed to lead a Catholic prefecture in the country first time after Khmer Rouge rule ended some five decades ago, which Church leaders hailed as a historic turning point for the local Church.

Some 60 priests from three dioceses in Cambodia joined on Oct. 1 for the installation of Father Pierre Suon Hangly as the new apostolic prefect of Kampong Cham.


It is “a historic event for the local Church,” said Bishop Bruno Cosme of Paris Mission Society (MEP), who was apostolic administrator of Kampong Cham for the past three years.

“It is an important step for the Church in Cambodia,” he said.

Korean Archbishop Paul Tschang In-Nam, who was apostolic nuncio to Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar until July, presided over Mass alongside Father Pierre Suon Hangly, for his installation.

Father Hangly, 51, is the first native Cambodian appointed to Kampong Cham, one of the three ecclesiastical jurisdictions of the country. The other two are the apostolic vicariate of Phnom Penh and the apostolic prefecture of Battambang.

Kampong Cham prefecture covers eight provinces in eastern Cambodia such as Kompong Cham, Kratie, Stoeng Treng, Rotanah Kiri, Mondol Kiri, Svay Rieng and Prey Veng.

Born in 1972, Father Hangly was ordained a priest in 2001 in Phnom Penh. He studied with the MEP in Paris from 2007 to 2015 and in July 2015 Pope Francis appointed him to Kampong Cham.

Kampong Cham currently has some 20,000 Catholics in a population of some followers 16 million people, mostly Buddhists.

“At the beginning of evangelization in Cambodia, the Foreign Missions of Paris were always in charge,” said Bishop Cosme.

For centuries, MEP priests have been responsible for the mission. Between 1955 and 1975 they formed local clergy ordinaed, seven Cambodian priests, including two leaders of the local Church—Monsignor Paul Tep Im Sotha as apostolic prefect of Battambang, and Monsignor Joseph Chhmar Salas as the first and only Cambodian to head the vicariate of Phnom Penh

But both these leaders died under the Khmer Rouge regime, Bishop Cosme said.

“This ordination and installation is an important step… and is a joy for the local Church,” he said.

The MEP missionaries returned in 1990 and “everything had to be rebuilt” in these dioceses again. Since then “there were three foreign ordinaries in Cambodia. We now have a new Cambodian prefect, and this is a historic turning point,” he said.

Father Hangly before his installation said that “people are happy with this appointment of the first Khmer prefect in Kampong Cham. This is an important step. It is a joy for the local Church that we can govern our Church.”

"It's a fairly large territory, larger than the other dioceses, but there are few Christians," he said.

Father Hangly said he first wants to get to know the local communities. “Here, it’s very simple, we meet every month, we pray together. There are many priests and religious ready to help me with this new mission.”

“I would like to help the prefecture to evangelize in the provinces where there are ethnic minorities, like in Rotanah Kiri, where the community could grow quickly,” the apostolic prefect said.

Several MEP missionaries continue to be part of the local clergy such as Bishop Bruno Cosme, Bishop Antonysamy Susairaj (former apostolic prefect until 2019), Father François Hemelsdaël, Father Gérald Vogin and Father Guillaume Pingat.

The prefecture has 21 priests including Cambodian priests, and missionaries of Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), Lazarist and Mill Hill Mission. There are also some Korean, Italian and Indian priests, as well as an Ecuadorian and a French Fidei Donum priest.

Evangelism Challenge

“When Bishop André Lesouëf [apostolic prefect of Kampong Cham from 1968 to 1997] came here, he only found a Christian. Gradually others were baptized. There were new communities. There are some difficulties for evangelization, in the city in particular, and we have to find the best way for that,” said Bishop Cosme.

“But I believe that at the beginning, priests and religious have to work together. If we live well together, like a family, with love, it is a good testimony,” he said.

The new prefect also faces the challenge of materialism which can affect evangelization, particularly in the city.

"In Phnom Penh, for example, we asked village priests to give the contacts of Christians coming to the capital, so that they can help these people return to the Church. Because if their faith is not strong and they leave their village, they don't come anymore,” Bishop Cosme said.

He explained that many ethnic minorities in the north and east of Cambodia are converting.

"The majority of baptisms come from these communities. They can be Cambodians or Vietnamese, of course. But these minorities ask to know Christ,” Bishop Cosme added.

The prelate said various challenges face Bishop Hangly in a vast territory with many rural parishes, including sometimes very small communities.

He said what is important is the “duty of charity…It is about being close to those who are sick and to those who are poor. There is also plenty for the elderly to do.”

“There is also the drug problem, which affects many young people. Then there is everything to do with education,” said the former apostolic administrator, who mentions four high schools, Catholic schools that obtain good results, as well as student hostels for boys and girls.

 “There are a lot of things to do for young people who are mostly not Christians. The presence of the Church can allow them to know Christ,” he said.

Before his installation, Father Hangly said that he wishes to get to know the prefecture. “Then I can think about projects with my advisers,” he said.

*This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of the Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Missions Society.


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