Cambodia - Our Twin Parish
Siem Reap is a large city built on the tourist industry as it is about five miles from the World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat, which attracts many millions of tourists. It is a bustling city and the Church is near the centre of the city and has many outreach programmes in rural areas, but also welcomes many tourists.
Our twinning began in 2005 with a formal agreement arranged by Bishop Michael. We exchanged a few letters with the priest, Fr Heri, and then in November of that year he came to England and visited St Edmund's. This was the real beginning of our friendship with the Parish in Siem Reap. Fr Heri is very energetic and outgoing, he has an infectious laugh and made a big impact on St Edmund's Parish and in our schools. His visit was very brief, but it encouraged Fr Philip to make a visit to Siem Reap to further the twinning relationship. Fr Philip's first visit was in January 2006. The early part of the year is the best time to visit because it is the dry season in Cambodia and not too hot, around 25 - 30oC. The first visit came as an amazing culture shock, Cambodia is a very poor country, it is 95 per cent Buddhist and the Church is very small, perhaps only 30,000 Catholics in the whole country.
Fr Philip was given a great welcome and made to feel very much part of the Catholic community. He visited many of the projects with which the Church is engaged, both in Battambang and in Siem Reap. Much of the work of the Church involves caring for very poor families. It provides rice soup for the children in different communities, and has established learning centres and kindergartens to help families and young people. Since Fr Philip's first visit much work has been done, some supported financially by our Parish and some supported by our Diocese. The rice soup programme now reaches about 1500 children each week and there are residential centres for students from rural areas to enable them to continue school. The Church also has many innovative projects, running both a rice bank and a cow bank. The Church has some land where rice is grown, which is then stored. Towards the end of the dry season, when the people are running out of rice, they can borrow a 50-kilo bag, which they pay back when they harvest their own. The cow bank works in a similar way: the Church buys a cow and then gives the first calf to a family to raise. When that cow has its first calf, the family give this to the Church, any other calves then belong to the family, and the original calf can go to another family.
The message of the gospel is always proclaimed, but not as a condition for receiving rice or food, the people are fed because they are poor. When they ask the reason why the Church helps they are told about God's love for them and gradually the seed of the word of God takes root. In the last few years there have been many baptisms and many more people are in the preparation period for baptism.
We have welcomed two groups of young adults from Cambodia, which has been a great joy, they bring such enthusiasm for the gospel and for life. We hope to welcome more people in the future. Fr Heri has now left Siem Reap for another posting and the new priest is Fr Panus, a Jesuit from Indonesia. He is a much younger priest and this is his first posting, so he is a little nervous and has the hard task of following Fr Heri who had been there for 10 years.
Fr Philip took a second group of parishioners in February 2011 and met Fr Panus and many other friends in Siem Reap. These visits both ways strengthen our bonds of friendship and faith. It would be wrong to think that our twinning is only a one-way flow of money, because there are many other benefits to both communities because of this link.
There are many photos on the website and on the Diocesan website that give some idea of the life in Cambodia and the work there. If you wish to help in any way this is easy to do. Donations can be sent to St Edmund's or to the Diocesan Office. If you are thinking of travelling in South East Asia, do remember to go and visit St John's Church in Siem Reap and if you wish to spend some time volunteering, they will certainly find some very rewarding for you work to do.