St Mary's Church in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The church is run by Brother Van The Vinh, an ethnic Vietnamese (photo by Alessandro Speciale)
The glittering lights of Diamond Island, a gargantuan development project on the Tonle Bassac River where the Cambodian government has ambitious plans to build one the world’s tallest skyscrapers, shine just across the water from Tuol Tang.
But in this impoverished neighborhood at the southern edge of central Phnom Penh, the rapid modernization of Cambodia's capital still seems distant.
Tuol Tang is home to a few hundred stateless immigrants of Vietnamese origin, and the Catholic Church has been working hard to promote their integration into Cambodian society, fighting resistance on both sides – and within the Church itself.
Though some of Tuol Tang's Vietnamese have been living in Cambodia for decades, the majority of them can barely speak Khmer, the national language, said Brother Van The Vinh, who is in charge of the local church of St Mary.
St Mary's lies at the end of a small unpaved alley, a stone's throw from the river. The wooden houses which surround the church are often submerged when the Bassac is in flood.
Over the past few years, Vinh has been working to send 60 of Tuol Tang's ethnic Vietnamese children to Cambodia's state schools.
“At the beginning, there was a lot of resistance from the families, who asked why their children should learn Khmer,” he says.
Hostilities between Cambodians and Vietnamese run deep, even among Catholics.
According to Vinh: “The [Vietnamese] grandparents hate the Khmer, and they want their families to have nothing to do with them.”
Some of the Vietnamese Catholic families that arrived here in the 1950s and 60s faced expulsion and later war as Cambodia was engulfed in the insurgency led by the Khmer Rouge. When Pol Pot’s murderous regime took power in 1975, many went from place to place on Cambodia’s rivers.
Their latest settlement, just across the river from Tuoll Tang, was burned in a fire a few years ago.
Phnom Penh's expansion has caught up with them and they now live well inside the city.
Even if most of them were born in Cambodia, the majority speaks a little-known Vietnamese dialect and uses only basic Khmer. None of the two countries recognize them as their own citizens.
Thanks to Vinh's efforts, Tuol Tang's Vietnamese children attend two years of pre-school at the church.
“When they arrive at school they can speak proper Khmer and not be ostracized,” says Vinh. “We want to give them the chance to have a future, to integrate into the society they live in.”
But his efforts have met with resistance even within the local Church, with some Catholics doubting that the two communities can fully integrate.
About two-thirds of Cambodia's estimated 30,000 Catholics are of Vietnamese origin, according to the vicar general of Phnom Penh's Apostolic Prefecture, Father Mario Ghezzi. Some 10,000 live in the capital or on its outskirts, out of about 13,000 Catholics in total in this area.
“If you mix Vietnamese and Cambodian [Catholics], in 10 years’ time there will be no more Cambodian Catholics. The Khmer will start to quietly go back towards the back of the church, and finally disappear,” warned Father François Ponchaud, a French missionary who has spent most of his life in Cambodia.
It was Ponchaud who, with his 1977 book Cambodia: Year Zero, revealed to the world the sheer scale of the brutality inflicted on the country by the Khmer Rouge.
Before this communist revolution, the Cambodian Church was mostly an offshoot of Vietnam.
According to Ponchaud, “before 1970, the Vietnamese had completely swallowed up the Church. It was impossible to be Khmer and Catholic.”
But in 1970 the Cambodian government decided to expel most Vietnamese. “For us it was a shock, a sea change. We had to start again from scratch,” recalled Bishop Yves-Georges-René Ramousse, the former Apostolic Vicar of Phnom Penh until the Khmer Rouge took over the city in April 1975.
Over the next 15 years, the Church was all but extinct in Cambodia. During the four years in which the Khmer Rouge was in charge, no religious remnant survived. Missionaries fled and even temples in this majority Buddhist country were destroyed or used for other purposes. When Pol Pot’s regime was ousted from Phnom Penh in early 1979 by the invading Vietnamese army, they stayed for the next decade as Cambodia began to stabilize but remained mostly off-limits to the Church as fighting continued to rage on the periphery of the country.
Only when the Vietnamese left by the early 1990s did the Church start to rebuild here, acquiring a distinctly Khmer identity.
Still today, liturgies are held exclusively in Khmer, despite a majority of Catholics being Vietnamese.
But in past years, there has been a creeping “re-Vietnamization” of the Church, according to Ponchaud. And Vinh’s efforts to integrate Tuol Tang's Vietnamese community into the Church and society as a whole are part of this process.
Father Ghezzi says that the divisions of the past – caught up in the recent history of conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam – must be overcome if the Church here is to fully unite.
“I agree that the liturgies must be in Khmer but it is possible to pacify the two communities. The Church must be a prophetic sign for the whole society, overcoming its inner divisions,” he says.
Brother Vinh agrees: “We live in a new era. Of course it is hard for old Khmer and Vietnamese. But for young people the time of war is now past.”