Spanish priest a good shepherd for ex-Khmer Rouge

'Bishop of the Wheelchair' who gave aid, loans to ex-soldiers devotes life to helping nation overcome ghosts of its past
Spanish priest a good shepherd for ex-Khmer Rouge

Father Enrique Figaredo baptizes a Cambodian girl in this file photo. (Photo supplied)

Within weeks of the collapse of the final remnants of the Khmer Rouge in late 1998, Father Enrique Figaredo, also known as "Kike" or "The Bishop of the Wheelchair," went to visit some of the movement's last-standing cadres after hearing they needed assistance.

During the decades-long civil war, many had lost limbs to landmines and were struggling after the group's ultra-communist leadership had defected, died or been arrested.
While many people would have been apprehensive to say the least about entering an area that until recently had been controlled by one of the most feared revolutionary movements of the 20th century, Father Figaredo saw it as his calling.

"I remember going to one of the furthest corners of Cambodia," he said from within the grounds of Battambang Catholic Church, or Pet Yiey Chee as it is known by locals.

"They asked for my support. I went to see them and gave them chickens so they could have eggs and meat. I also gave them small loans," most of which are still being put to use today, he said.

"You could feel very fast that they were still trapped within a military structure, but that they were still very human. We related to the human side. I'm sure a few of them made some very regrettable mistakes, but not all."

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Born in Gijon, Spain in 1959, he joined the Society of Jesus 20 years later and started off volunteering in the slums and poor neighborhoods of Madrid before deciding he wanted to work with refugees.

Father Figaredo was stationed at refugee camps near the Thai border from 1984-1988, where he worked with people who had lost arms and legs fleeing or fighting with or against the murderous Pol Pot regime of the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Khmer Rouge reverted to being a guerrilla movement.

Here the Spanish priest picked up the nickname "Bishop of the Wheelchair" as he spent his days easing the travails of the handicapped, the outcast and the forgotten.

He created centers at the camps for child soldiers, a term that was barely used at the time, and arranged activities including a music concert replete with electric guitars.

After working with Cambodians with disabilities in the 1990s, the priest was appointed the Apostolic Prefect of Battambang in 2000.

 

Khmer Rouge conversions

Strolling around a Catholic neighborhood in this city on the banks of the Sangkae River in northwestern Cambodia, Father Figaredo ambles past colonial buildings and speaks of the roots laid here centuries ago by Portuguese missionaries.

As he walks, dozens of locals rush to greet him. Fluent in Khmer, he jokes with the children and checks in on mothers with newborns.

On the church grounds, a congregation of several hundred people assemble each Sunday for Mass. They come from all walks of life. Some have darker pasts than others.

Father Figaredo said many former Khmer Rouge soldiers used to come to his church. Some were haunted by the ghosts of the past, hinting at the atrocities they witnessed or participated in.

"They were Catholics but also former Khmer Rouge," he said.

"Some would bring their kids while they stayed outside. I'd invite them in but something was stopping them. They would say things like, 'I did some bad thing so I can't come in yet'," he recalls. "It saddened me greatly."

Conversions to Christianity, usually Protestantism, were quite common among former Khmer Rouge soldiers.

Kaing Kek Iev, better known by his alias "Duch," former chief of the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh where more than 15,000 people are thought to have perished, became a lay preacher in the 1990s before he was arrested and given a life sentence at a war crimes tribunal.

Im Chaem, a former Khmer Rouge official who was facing charges of murder, enslavement, imprisonment and other "inhumane acts" before the case was controversially dropped, also recently converted, telling the media: "My mind is fresh and open with blessings from God."

Father Figaredo said he can understand why they turned to Christianity instead of Buddhism, the predominant faith in Cambodia.

"In Christianity, there is forgiveness and there is hope," he said. "All depends on God's judgment, and they can try to transform their lives. Moreover, Buddhism stresses karma whereas Christianity offers salvation, which may have held more appeal."

"Many of the former Khmer Rouge who I know are happy to be liberated from their past," he said.

 

Sex abuse scandals

Father Figaredo, who has mostly been upbeat and jovial during the interview, strikes a more sombre tone when asked about the slew of sex abuse scandals that have engulfed the Catholic Church in recent times.

While speaking of his devastation at hearing of such cases, he said the widespread cover-ups within the Church are less likely to take place in Asia due to more localized hierarchical structures.

"Where Asia has an advantage over other parts of the world that are experiencing sex abuse crises [within the Church] is that the church here is not so powerful," he said, noting that some places like the Philippines and Timor-Leste are exceptions to this rule.

For example, he said he has still not heard of any such cases in Cambodia.

"Scandals like that would destroy the churches we have here, which are relatively small and weak," he said. "We are just a small group of worshippers, a tiny minority, nothing more. We provide many services but we are not deemed relevant in society."

He used the word "earthquakes" to describe the seismic shocks that sex abuse cases are having in some Western countries, adding "my hope is we won't see such temblors here."

"That hasn't become an issue here  — yet," he added.

 

Future of the Church

Asked about the current political situation, particularly the outlawing of the Cambodia National Rescue Party — the only realistic threat to the ruling Cambodian People's Party — ahead of the July 29 general election, Father Figaredo said he prefers to keep his discussions with officials behind closed doors.

He did, however, praise the ruling party for its efforts to promote interfaith relations in Cambodia.

And with his Cambodian citizenship now being processed, he thinks he will be around for a while yet. Nonetheless, he hopes to pass the mantle to a Cambodian bishop within the next decade.

"I'm thinking about retiring here, unless I get very sick," he said.

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