Vietnam's Cao Dai sect flourishing amid Hollywood endoresment

TAY NINH, Vietnam, June 3 (AFP) -

As Vietnam battles a reputation for unyielding treatment of religious minorities at least one sect, the Cao Dai, has made up with the communist government, a one-time bitter enemy.

"It is much different than 10 years ago. Before we were not allowed to hold certain services but now we can," said Cao Dai disciple Le Van Khiem.

He said the government had donated money for renovation work at the sect's colourful citadel, sprawled over 100 hectares (247 acres) outside of Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border in southwest Vietnam.

Founded in the late 1920s with the help of a French civil servant, the Cao Dai -- who mix Buddhist and Christian influences with a palette of more esoteric beliefs -- were a constant player for decades of Indochinese wars between the communists, French, American and allied forces.

Like the still-outlawed Hoa Hao sect, the Cao Dais held private armies and were renowned for their hatred of communists, often siding with the French and US until 1975.

But only since 1997, when the government officially recognised the religion, has all been forgiven.

The tourists are arriving, the outlandishly multi-coloured citadel has a fresh coat of paint and disciples are expected to feature in a Hollywood adaptation of Graham Greene's classic novel, the Quiet American.

Directed by Australian Philip Noyce ("Bone Collector", "Dead Calm"), the Quiet American, is nearing post-production stages and is expected to further raise Cao Dai's standing.

Sir Michael Caine plays a British foreign correspondent who in the early 1950s is confronted by a US conspiracy aimed at undermining the French and communists in Cochin China, Tonkin and Annam by introducing a third armed force. The Cao Dai and Hoa Hao are strong contenders.

Released in 1955, Greene's novel was later acclaimed as a portent for American involvement in what would become North and South Vietnam.

Filming in Vietnam ended in March and, four years after gaining official recognition, the Cao Dai could win international fame when the movie is released early next year.

Until then the heavenly stars continue to glitter from the temple's ceiling as tour bus operators escort their trade onto a second floor balcony for one of four daily services.

"We get between 100 and 200 people from countries like the United States, France, Germany and Poland each day. Numbers are always high in summer," Khiem said. "Things have improved."

In the Quiet American, Graham Greene described Caodaism as a "prophecy of planchette".

"Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of a Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in technicolor," Greene wrote.

Inside the temple of the Holy See, the faithful kneel before a three metre (nine foot) diameter eyeball and pray to their saints.

"We pray for the souls of the dead," said one priest amid Buddhist-styled chants. "We wish them peace."

The main saints venerated by the sect include Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen, French poet Victor Hugo and Vietnam's first poet, Nguyen Binh Khiem.

Moses and Jesus Christ are recognised respectively as the first and second realisation of mankind's link with God.

Within Cao Dai ranks, of which there are some 300,000 followers, Nguyen Binh Khiem is seen as the third realisation of this link with cardinals and popes.

The Cao Dai's standing in Vietnam is in stark contrast to other sects.

The Buddhist Hoa Hao are banned and their monks cast as criminals, as is Father Tadeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest and the country's most prominent dissident.

Father Ly testified by letter to the US Congress about religious oppression under the communists. His arrest on May 17, coincided with a visit by US assistant secretary of state James Kelly.

"In 1997 the Cao Dai were officially recognised by the government which allowed them to carry out Cao Dai activities with the same rights as other religions," said Le Hong Dien, a local official responsible for culture and religious affairs.

Dien was unsure why other religions did not enjoy the same standing.

"Perhaps they do not meet conditions laid down by the government," he said.

"In many countries there are many religions which are not recognised and Vietnam is the same."

For the Cao Dai freedom of expression remains a breath of fresh air.

"Visits to their temple a decade ago were as rare as hens' teeth. They were the lost souls," quipped one long-time foreign resident.