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VIETNAMESE SECT FLOURISHES UNDER COMMUNIST REGIME

SHARE VIETNAMESE SECT FLOURISHES UNDER COMMUNIST REGIME

For the American GIs who fought and died in this lush countryside adjoining Cambodia, this was "Charlie Country."

Never certain who their enemy was, the grunts who fought in Tay Ninh Province were forced to live in almost constant fear of attack. The enemy forces often struck at American bases on rubber plantations and then retreated to jungle sanctuaries in neighboring Cambodia.The Cambodian invasion in the spring of 1970 failed to halt such tactics, or stem the endless flow of arms down the Ho Chi Minh trail and into the hands of the enemy.

If the Viet Cong were duplicitous and deadly, the Americans invariably could count on some other local Vietnamese - their staunch allies, the Cao Dai. The fiercely loyal offbeat religious sect, based in Tay Ninh, fought long and bravely alongside the Americans, often with the Green Berets.

Vietnam veterans who remember the Cao Dai favorably would be pleased to know they are surviving, if not flourishing, under the Communist regime.

At high noon Thursday, mass was under way at the huge Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh. Several hundred of the faithful, all dressed in white, knelt and chanted for a better world.

The Cao Dai worship various saints, including the late French poet Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen, leader of the 1911 Chinese revolution. They also honor Jesus Christ and other religious leaders.

The Cao Dai practice a truly inclusive religion.

In an interview at Cao Dai headquarters in Tay Ninh, Cardinal Thuong Tho Thanh recalled that during the Vietnam War many GIs visited the temple.

The 80-year-old Cao Dai leader estimated there were 3 million members of the sect in Indochina during the war, but many of them have since fled to other countries.

"Many of our people left after the Communists took over," Tho said, adding that relations between the sect and the state have improved in recent years.

But make no mistake - the communists won and Tay Ninh Province is still "Charlie Country."

At a nearby village, Tra Van Thu, 35, made it clear to a visiting reporter that he is an unreconstructed Viet Cong and proud of it.

"You're an American," he shouted. "Who gave you the permission to come here and ask questions?"