Cambodian Cao Daists prepare to send last pope home to Vietnam

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - The remains of the last pope of one of the world's most colourful religions, Cao Dai, were prepared Wednesday to finally be returned from Cambodia to his birthplace and that of his religion, neighbouring Vietnam. Most of the 200 adherents of the religion in Cambodia as well as Cambodian religious officials and representatives of the Vietnamese embassy attended a ceremony at the small temple in the western suburbs of the capital that has housed the bones of Pope Pham Cong Tac for most of the period since his death nearly 48 years ago.

The agreement between the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments to allow the remains to be returned to the religion's Holy See in the Tay Ninh province of Vietnam represents a long-awaited breakthrough, according to the religion's director in Cambodia, Vor Wang Minh, who, like the rest of the followers at Wednesday's ceremony wore the distinctive long white tunic and black turban of the religion.

"We have been waiting and negotiating for this moment for many years. This is a very happy time for us," he said, adding that the movement would still retain a presence in Cambodia.

The religion of Cao Dai, which means high tower, is better known now for its fantastic and colourful Tay Ninh temple, which attracts thousands of tourists every year.

However, led by former Catholic Pham Cong Tac, the Cao Dai was once a fearsome political force with its own private army. Since the communist victory in 1975, the Vietnamese government has kept a tight reign on the movement, for instance by outlawing seances which are necessary for the religion to elevate new members to high positions and select a new pope.

Combining aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism along with Christianity and Islam, the religion's eclectic range of saints include the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen.

Its structure is based on that of the Catholic church, with a pope at its head. Its temples are characterized by depictions of a giant eye.

Cambodia holds a special place for the religion as it was here that followers believe one of its highest saints, 19th century French author Victor Hugo, first appeared to Pham Cong Tac and told him the religion would find refuge here. Former king Norodom Sihanouk himself later guaranteed the Cao Dai sanctuary.

A spokesman for the Vietnamese embassy present for Wednesday's ceremony said the Vietnamese government welcomed the agreement to send the religion's last pope home and thanked the Cambodian government for helping to facilitate the move.

The funeral procession of 10 vans, including a brightly painted hearse, is scheduled to leave Phnom Penh early Thursday morning under tight security for the two-hour journey to the border.

Cao Dai followers are expected to line the route from the border crossing at Bavet all the way to Pham Cong Tac's final resting place in Tay Ninh, where plans for massive celebrations are underway, according to Minh.

Cao Daists claim more than 6 million followers worldwide.