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Tep Vong, the leader of Cambodia’s Buddhist community, dies at 93

Tep Vong, the leader of Cambodia’s Buddhist community, dies at 93

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Tep Vong, the senior monk who headed Cambodia’s Buddhist community and was vital for its rejuvenation in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide in the late 70s, has died. He was 93.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Cult and Religion said Tep Vong died Monday after an extended illness.

Tep Vong in 2006 was granted the title of the Great Supreme Patriarch, making him the religious chief of both the Mahanikay and Dhammayut orders of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia. About 97% of Cambodia’s 17 million people are Buddhists.

He had been close to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and its leader, Hun Sen, who served as prime minister for 38 years before stepping down last year.

Tep Vong was key to the rejuvenation of Buddhism in Cambodia after the communist Khmer Rouge during their 1975-79 rule tried to eradicate all organized religion. Their radical policies are blamed for the deaths of as many as 1.7 million people from starvation, illness, and execution.

After an invasion by neighboring Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in January 1979, Tep Vong was one of a core group of seven monks re-ordained under Vietnamese sponsorship to reestablish the organized Buddhist faith in the country, temporarily uniting the Mahanikay and Dhammayut orders.

Born in 1932 in the northeastern province of Siem Reap, home to Cambodia’s famous Angkor temples, Tep Vong was first ordained as a monk in his hometown in 1952, serving until he was forced to defrock when the Khmer Rouge came to power.

He served as the senior monk in the sangha — the Buddhist monastic community — that included both orders until 1991, when the Mahanikay and Dhammayut separated again, and Tep Vong became the Supreme Patriarch of the dominant Mahanikay order.

In 2006, he was elevated to the Great Supreme Patriarch, making him the head of both orders.

His body will be kept at Ounalom Pagoda, the centuries-old temple in the capital Phnom Penh where he had long served, for public viewing ahead of his funeral.

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