Vietnam Buddhists complain of ongoing harassment

By BEN STOCKING, Associated Press, Dec 2, 2009

HANOI, Vietnam -- Followers of a famed Buddhist monk say they are continuing to suffer police harassment two months after they were forcibly evicted from a monastery in southern Vietnam.

The followers of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who has popularized Buddhism in the West and sold millions of books worldwide, say they are being persecuted because their teacher called on Vietnam's Communist government to end state control of religion and dismantle the country's religious police.

They say authorities are pressuring them to leave three temples where they have sought refuge since being ousted from the Bat Nha Monastery by an angry mob and police in late September.

On Sunday, police escorted about 20 monks and nuns from the Tu Duc Monastery in Khanh Hoa province and drove them back to their home villages, according to Sister Chan Khong, a close associate of Nhat Hanh who spoke from the Plum Village monastery in southern France, where he is based.

Police declined to comment and government officials could not be reached. Authorities have previously described the conflict as a dispute between two Buddhist factions.

They say they are simply upholding the will of Bat Nha Abbot Duc Nghi, a member of the official Buddhist Church of Vietnam who invited Nhat Hanh's followers to settle at the monastery in 2005 but rescinded his offer in 2008.

Last week, the European Union's parliament passed a resolution that criticized Vietnam's human rights record and mentioned the events at Bat Nha.

Vietnamese-born Nhat Hanh has lived in exile since being forced out of the former South Vietnam in the 1960s due to his opposition to the Vietnam War. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr.

He was warmly welcomed by authorities during a homecoming visit four years ago. But during a 2007 visit, he suggested to President Nguyen Minh Triet that the government give up its control of religion and consider dropping the word "socialist" from Vietnam's formal name. Since then, relations have deteriorated.

The dispute came to light in June, when an angry mob attacked Bat Nha. Nhat Hanh's followers remained at the mountain retreat until Sept. 27, when an angry mob and police forced them out.

About 350 sought refuge at the nearby Phuoc Hue temple, where the abbot, Thai Thuan, has welcomed them.

"I would be willing to let them stay in my pagoda for several years," Thuan said by telephone Tuesday.

Nhat Hanh's followers say police are keeping them under constant surveillance at Phuoc Hue and are pressuring them to leave. Authorities make regular announcements on the village public address system denouncing them as anti-government "reactionaries," according to Sister Dang Nghiem, a close associate of Nhat Hanh based in California.

Due to the ongoing pressure, Nhat Hanh's followers say, some 150 followers have left, including those who went to Tu Duc.

Another group of followers from Bat Nha has taken refuge at the Tu Hieu temple in Hue, where they say police make daily visits ordering them to leave.

Police became enraged after the abbot at Tu Hieu held an ordination ceremony on Nov. 21 for 22 of the followers, according to a statement on the Web site operated by Nhat Hanh's supporters.

The statement also said that Abbot Minh Nghia of Ho Chi Minh City was threatened by police after he offered to take in followers from Phuoc Hue.
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