About 200 devotees of Thich Nhat Hanh dispersed last month from the Phuoc Hue pagoda in central Vietnam after visits by what a US-based rights group described as "orchestrated" mobs that included police.

It was the second time since September that they had fled from a temple after what Human Rights Watch alleged was a year of intensified government effort to disband the community of young monks and nuns.

The devotees fled first from Bat Nha monastery after "thugs and undercover police" armed with hammers descended upon it, the watchdog said.

Their expulsion drew expressions of concern from both the US embassy and the European Parliament.

Nhat Hanh, a Zen monk and peace activist who was a confidant of slain US civil rights leader Martin Luther King, is based at the Plum Village monastery in France.

"It's very difficult for us to feel safe... in our own country," one nun said, declining to reveal her name, age or the community where she is staying.

She said she was among the last to leave Phuoc Hue before a December 31 deadline that has sent "the majority" of devotees underground.

The nun said she initially moved to a rented house with other followers elsewhere in the country.

A suspected plainclothes policeman was always stationed outside the house, the nun said, alleging "the same thing happened to many, many of my brothers and sisters."

The nun said she has since moved to a different community where she lives with other devotees -- who have so far not been bothered by the authorities.

Another nun said the monastics have spread out around the country; she is among some followers of Nhat Hanh who have returned home to their families.

"I'm not hiding but I don't want many people to know where I am now," she said. Like the first nun, she declined to give her name or location for security reasons.

Many temples in Vietnam would like to sponsor Nhat Hanh's followers "but the government doesn't give permission", the first nun said.

The government could not immediately respond on Wednesday to AFP's request for comment.

In October a foreign ministry spokeswoman described the matter as an internal Buddhist dispute and denied that hundreds of people had been forced from Bat Nha.

The government of Vietnam says it always respects freedom of belief and religion, but all religious activity remains under state control.

Human Rights Watch has said the ousting of Nhat Hanh's followers was "clearly linked to his call for religious reforms."

Nhat Hanh teaches what is known as "socially engaged" Buddhism.

He travelled to the United States in 1966 to call for an end to the Vietnam War and was not allowed to return by either the US-backed Saigon regime or the communist government that has ruled reunified Vietnam since 1975. He visited the country in 2005 and 2007.

In December a delegation representing Nhat Hanh's followers asked France for temporary asylum, saying they no longer felt safe in Vietnam.

"We are waiting for the help from outside," the first nun said, referring to the asylum request.

In a country where 51 percent of the population is under the age of 30, most of Nhat Hanh's followers are young people. They meditate to reduce suffering and cultivate happiness, she said.

Being separated from each other, as they are now, makes it difficult for them to carry out their practice, the essence of which comes from living as a community, the nuns said.

"In our hearts, we would like to have a place for us to live together," the second nun said.

Agence France Presse - January 8, 2009