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Cambodian Church cheers first deacon from ethnic Bunong

Ordination of deacon John Baptist Prak Hong is hailed as a 'great joy' and 'great gift' for the tiny Catholic community

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: December 07, 2021 04:18 AM GMT

Updated: December 07, 2021 09:49 AM GMT

Cambodian Church cheers first deacon from ethnic Bunong

John Baptist Prak Hong is the first deacon from the Bunong community in Cambodia. (Photo: Fides.org)

The tiny Catholic community in Buddhist-majority Cambodia has welcomed with delight and enthusiasm the first-ever deacon from the ethnic minority Bunong people.

John Baptist Prak Hong was ordained as a deacon at St. Joseph Church in Kdol Leu, a territory covered by the Apostolic Prefecture of Kampong Cham, on Nov. 30, reports the Vatican’s Fides news agency.

French Bishop Olivier Marie Schmitthaeusler said the ordination was a matter of "great joy and a great gift for the whole Cambodian Church.”

The Bunong community marked the occasion with a passionate and colorful procession wearing traditional dress accompanied by traditional music and the beating of drums.

The Bunong mostly live in Mondulkiri province in the central highlands of Cambodia on the border with Vietnam.

About 50,000 Bunong people in Cambodia mostly adhere to the animist faith tradition, with small factions following Theravada Buddhism and Catholicism. They make up about 54 percent of the population in Mondulkiri province, according to Mondulkiri Project.

God chose Hong from a small village in Busra to come to announce the Good News to the Kampong Cham and Catholic community of Cambodia

Bishop Schmitthaeusler said that Hong’s religious vocation despite numerous challenges is a reason to express gratitude to God.

"Today we are filled with joy and gratitude to God for Hong's ordination. If we look at Brother Hong's path, we see how God loves humanity. God chose Hong from a small village in Busra to come to announce the Good News to the Kampong Cham and Catholic community of Cambodia,” said the prelate, a member of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP).

“It is not easy to travel from Busra to Phnom Penh. Hong traveled to attend the theological seminary. We thank God who called him, as he did with St. Andrew, the first missionary called by Jesus.”

The bishop also paid tribute to his predecessor, MEP missionary André Lesouëf, who was the first bishop of the Apostolic Prefecture of Kampong Cham when it was erected in 1968.

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“Today with Hong, the first exponent of the Catholic clergy of the Bunong people, we see in depth the history of salvation. We thank God and his parents: it is a special fruit that parents offer to our community. Thanks to the parish of Busra, which was the fruitful environment in which God's call grew in Hong's heart," he said.

The prelate reminded Hong and local Catholics that they are called to become “fishers of men” as Jesus invited his apostles to be.

St. Joseph Church, located near the Mekong River, is part of Kampong Cham territory where 4 million Cambodians live.  

"Hong has a lot of work to do; nets must be thrown everywhere," Bishop Schmitthaeusler said, adding that he needs to be “like a bridge” and his life will be able to help people "connect with God" by establishing "a special bond between God and man through the service of the altar, especially through prayer, through the evangelical witness given in a careful way to the poor and the oppressed.”

The Bunong share their lives with elephants, treating them like members of the family

The Bunong are traditionally known as “forest keepers” and “elephant keepers” thanks to their distinct culture strongly related to the forests. Traditionally, they have relied on the forest and their modest farms for everything they need for survival, noted the Mondulkiri Project. The Bunong share their lives with elephants, treating them like members of the family.

Christians are a tiny minority in Cambodia. An estimated 20,000 Catholics are spread across three ecclesiastical jurisdictions — one apostolic vicariate and two apostolic prefectures.

However, the history of Catholicism in the country dates back to the 16th century. Until the near-decimation of the Church and deportation of all foreign missionaries during the genocidal Khmer Rouge rule (1975-79), as many as 62,000 Catholics lived in Cambodia.

Missionaries returned to Cambodia in the 1990s after the end of the civil war and rebuilt the Catholic Church from ashes.

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