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Updated: March 29, 1994 05:00 PM GMT
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Representatives of the Catholic Church in Cambodia and the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs exchanged letters in Phnom Penh March 25 signaling open diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Cambodia.

Three members of the Pastoral Council of Cambodian Catholics, Bishop Yves Ramousse, apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, and Father Andre Lessouef met Foreign Minister Prince Norodom Sirivudh at 5 p.m. March 25.

At the same time, 11 a.m. in Rome, the Vatican announced the ties.

At a special liturgy of thanksgiving on March 27, Catholics in Cambodia prayed for the unity of the nation and for Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk.

The Vatican announcement said the formal ties were established "with the aim of reinforcing their already existing relationship of respect and friendship," Catholic News Service reported from Vatican City.

It also said the Vatican and the Catholic community in Cambodia were ready to assist with "the national reconciliation and reconstruction under way" after years of civil war.

The formal opening of relations came after a March 14-15 visit to Cambodia by Monsignor Claudio Celli, Vatican undersecretary for relations with states.

Catholics in Cambodia are thought to number about 25,000 now, although before 1970 the number was at least 65,000.

After the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died under the brutal regime and subsequent civil war. Catholics were among those persecuted. Two bishops, Joseph Chhmar Salas and Paul Tep Im, were among the clergy, laity and Religious who died.

Some women Religious survived as refugees and are now back working in the country. With them are about 15 foreign sisters working in education and health services. About 15 priests are in the country now.

The first attempt at Catholic evangelization in Cambodia was by the Portuguese Dominican Father Gaspar da Cruz in 1555. Over the next 200 years, various missioners from France, Goa (India), the Philippines, Portugal and Spain visited Cambodia, but were not successful in establishing bases.

From 1659, French missioners took responsibility for Catholics in Cambodia working from their base in Ayutthaya, the capital of Siam (now Thailand). Their missions there took on a more permanent character after 1750, although their work still tended to concentrate on an immigrant, expatriate population.

In 1768, Parish Foreign Mission Father Nicholas Levavasseur began publishing Khmer-language prayer and doctrine books, but this work ended with his death in 1777. He also formed a local order, the Sisters of the Cross of Jesus.

The first seminarians from Cambodia went to France in 1848 and the Vicariate of Cambodia was established in 1850. In 1865, it was given jurisdiction over a large area in what is now Vietnam.

The Cambodian Catholic community grew mostly during the years 1902-1939, though primarily among ethnic Vietnamese. As of 1955, the vicariate, since renamed Phnom Penh, counted 126,000 Catholics, only 3,000 of whom were Khmer.

The Carmel of our Lady of Hope sisters, established in Phnom Penh in 1919, opened convents in Bangkok (1925), Yunanfu, China (1936), and Singapore (1938). In 1906, the De La Salle Brothers opened schools in Battambang, Cambodia, and Phnom Penh.

By 1970 the vicariate, then coterminous with the Kingdom of Cambodia, had 65,000 Catholics served by 61 foreign and Cambodian priests and 250 sisters.

Including Cambodia, the Holy See now has diplomatic relations with 151 countries. The latest countries to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See were Jordan and South Africa.


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