12/09/2011, 00.00
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Many Phok’s Christmas: from Cambodian fatalism, to Christian Providence

by Dario Salvi
The conversion of a 30 year old mother of two children, working in an NGO in contact with children with AIDS. Attending her first mass she was struck by the sign of peace. She studied the catechism with a nun and was baptized, having opened her eyes "to see the Holy Spirit." The birth of Jesus is an invitation to "be not afraid".
Rome (AsiaNews) - She comes from a Buddhist family and encountered Christianity thanks to her boss, a lay missionary: "I thought - she says - that if he saw me go to Church he would give me a pay rise". At Mass, "I was positively shocked by the sign of peace" and in order to understand its real meaning "I started to attend catechism", given by a nun from Phnom Penh which provided the foundation for a faith that has matured over time, until her decision to repent and be baptized. This is what Many Phok tells AsiaNews. The 30 year-old Cambodian Catholic is a married mother of two children, deputy director of the NGO New Hope for Cambodian Children (Nhcc, an image of the center in the photo). In this Advent season leading to Christmas, she explains, the need to share the Christian message and witness the joy of a festival that "invites us not be afraid, not to lose hope" because "Jesus is born to us all” is even more urgent.

We met Many Phok during a recent trip to Rome, where she was a delegate for Cambodia at the 26th International Conference of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, organized by the Vatican. The woman works in Phnom Penh in the health field, dealing with families - mothers and children - affected by AIDS. Patients who are cared for, she adds, not only from a clinical point of view, but also human and social viewpoint, and patients should be helped to heal by overcoming "depression and fear" and fully reintegrating them "into society."

She still remembers the first Mass she attended and that gesture of the sharing of the sign of peace, so different from the rituals of the Buddhist tradition "where your eyes are fixed on the ground or monk" and the faithful "must remain firm and immovable." From that simple gesture, was born a curiosity, the desire to learn the basics of Catechism and deepen the choice of faith. "At first, when I said I attended the catechism, I wanted to understand the world of the Catholic Church – she remembers - my family objected, they thought I was mad”. The criticism of relatives failed to stop her from gradually changing, even if the small gestures she began to make aroused fierce criticism. Among the many episodes, her "forgetting" to return home at night because "absorbed by her work" experienced almost as a mission rather than just a means to make ends meet. "I began spending more time with patients -she explains - without asking for a pay increase, and this was incomprehensible in the eyes of my family." "My hope of having a wage increase – she laughs - did not come true. But I wanted to continue the journey of soul searching "

In 2005, in the parish church of the Infant Jesus, Many Phok was baptised by an Italian missionary, Father Mario Ghezzi, PIME. A moment that she still remembers very clearly: "while everyone closed their eyes - she says - I kept them open ... because I wanted to see him, this Holy Spirit coming down on me." And even those who know her well, confirm that the "mystical" element is what best characterizes her way of living her faith. "From baptism - she continues - my life has changed, because I continue to witness large and small miracles in everyday life." The passion that infuses her working in contact with children and adults with AIDS; incessant prayers to the Virgin for children, answered over time: "I have two children – she confides - and during my pregnancy I did not have any problems." Among the miracles, there is also the decision of her relatives to accept her conversion: "Now I am respected, considered as a pillar of the family and they encourage me to continue the journey."

Faith transforms the way we live everyday problems, difficulties at work, it gives you the strength not to give up, even when you may want to quit. "The scooter ride – she says - from home to the office is an opportunity for prayer, I turn to God to sustain me and give me the strength to go on." Many Phok repeats several times, turning to the Lord, "its up to you" and says she trusts herself entirely to His will. However, this choice is a deep rift with the unique culture of the Cambodian society: "In this we see a shift - the woman confides to AsiaNews - the fatalism characteristic of Cambodian society, to Providence which is a primary part of the Christian faith".

In these weeks of Advent, the Cambodian Christian community prepares for Christmas, "a great day because it tells us that Christ came among us." The feast, says Many, is also "a sign that invites us not to fear, not to lose hope." Family trees are decorated and guests, friends, family members "gift each other candy" and in the evening "prepare a great dinner together." Christmas is also celebrated in the workplace, to the delight of young and old: "In the morning I and my staff at the Nhcc, with the help of a special "Santa Claus" for the occasion - he says - distribute gifts to about 300 children, including non-Christians as a sign that Jesus was born for them. "Each child receives a bag with a different gift, including radio controlled cars, music CDs, dolls, skate-boards, mp3 players. "We also make small donations to churches – she concludes - to help the poor or youth groups, so they may also have some moments of celebration."

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