Zen master accuses Vietnam of evicting his followers
Thich Nhat Hanh says mobs were sent in to clear monasteries and calls on regime to restore religious freedom
A famous Zen master has accused Vietnam's communist government of hiring mobs to forcibly evict his Buddhist followers from two monasteries.
Thich Nhat Hanh, who helped popularise Buddhism in the west and has sold millions of books worldwide, has also called on Vietnam to restore religious freedom and respect human rights.
Nhat Hanh made the comments in a letter to his Vietnamese followers in late December after they were forced by a mob and government authorities to leave the Phuoc Hue temple in the southern province of Lam Dong.
"Our country does not yet have true religious freedom and the government tightly controls the Buddhist church machinery," Nhat Hanh wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Associated Press.
"The Buddhist church is helpless, unable to protect its own children. This is a truth clearly seen by everyone."
The monks and nuns had sought refuge at Phuoc Hue after being forced from the nearby Bat Nha monastery on 27 September..
"In the case of Bat Nha and Phuoc Hue government officials hired the mobs and worked together with them," Nhat Hanh wrote in the letter, dated "the last days of 2009".
Vietnamese officials denied Nhat Hanh's claims. "This is a dispute between two Buddhist factions," said Nguyen Ngoc Dong, the vice-chairman of the Lam Dong provincial government. "We have tried our best to ensure safety and social order for the people involved."
Nhat Hanh's followers say they have been harassed because their teacher called on Vietnamese authorities to abolish government control of religion during a 2007 meeting with the country's president, Nguyen Minh Triet.
In his letter to his followers, Nhat Hanh said the mobs at Phuoc Hue and Bat Nha were hired by police and the Fatherland Front, a communist party organisation. At Phuoc Hue they were paid 200,000 Vietnamese dong (£7) a day, he wrote.
"Where did the money come from to pay these mobs? Was it tax money?" asked Nhat Hanh, 83, who was born in Vietnam but has lived in exile for more than four decades. He teaches at his Plum Village monastery in France.
The conflict between the government and Nhat Hanh marks a dramatic turnaround from 2005 when he returned to his homeland in what was seen as a step forward for religious freedom.
In spite of the Bat Nha conflict, Nhat Hanh said in his letter that he believed Vietnam would eventually open up its society. Young Vietnamese, he wrote, "realise that Vietnam needs more democracy, more citizen rights and more human rights".
The Associated Press - January 11, 2010
Vietnam denies harassing Zen Buddhist group
Hanoi - Vietnam said Monday that the expulsion of foreign-affiliated Zen monks and nuns from a monastery stemmed from an internal dispute between Buddhist sects, and denied the group had been harassed by government officials and police. Members of the Plum Village Zen Buddhist sect said harassment by mobs including undercover police forced them to leave two monasteries in southern Vietnam's Lam Dong province between September and December.
The group is affiliated with France-based Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
Nguyen Thanh Xuan, deputy chairman of the government's Committee on Religious Affairs, said the group's monks and nuns had clashed with other clerics at the Bat Nha monastery over matters of Buddhist practice and property.
"Everything would have gone smoothly if not for the dispute between followers of the Plum Village practice, and the monks and nuns residing permanently at Bat Nha monastery," Xuan said.
Xuan said internal friction was also responsible for the Plum Village monastics' forced departure in December from nearby Phuoc Hue Pagoda. Phuoc Hue's abbot had offered them refuge after they were forced out of Bat Nha.
Asked why internet videos of the clashes showed mobs of people wearing street clothes, clearly from outside the monastery, harassing the Plum Village monastics and calling on them to leave, officials offered no clear explanation.
"This was internal friction between the Plum Village group and the Bat Nha authorities," said Nguyen Ngoc Dong, vice chairman of the Lam Dong provincial People's Committee. "The local authority has never intervened."
Followers of Thich Nhat Hanh said the group faces discrimination inside Vietnam since a 2008 meeting between the Zen sage and Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet. Hanh reportedly suggested to Triet that Vietnam end government regulation of religion.
Senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Dang Ho Phat said the government had tried to arrange a diplomatic meeting in France to resolve the dispute in October, but that Hanh refused.
Hanh's followers said he had received the invitation too late to reschedule a planned trip to the United States.
Hanh, 83, became famous as a leader of South Vietnam's Buddhist Movement in the 1960s, and has tens of thousands of followers in Europe and North America.
He was allowed to return to Vietnam in 2005 after 40 years in exile, and his spiritual gatherings drew large crowds. But he reportedly fell out of favor after advocating that the government cease regulating religious affairs.
The Communist government requires all religious groups to be registered with the authorities, although in recent years it has approved many new sects.
Deutsche Presse Agentur - January 11, 2010