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Evading Vietnam Police, Monks Head Underground

HANOI, Vietnam – Followers of a famous Buddhist monk have abandoned the temple in southern Vietnam where they had sought sanctuary and are on the run from police, who have been pressuring them for months to break up their monastic community and return to their home villages.
The students of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who helped popularize Buddhism in the West and sold millions of books worldwide, slipped away from the Phuoc Hue temple under cover of darkness earlier this week, a spokeswoman for the monks and nuns said by telephone Thursday.
“There’s no one left there,” said Sister Natasha, speaking from the Plum Village monastery in southern France, where Nhat Hanh is based. “They’ve gone into hiding.”
They departed just days before a Dec. 31 deadline set by Vietnam’s communist government to vacate Phuoc Hue and return to their home provinces.
The government says Nhat Hanh’s followers have violated Vietnam’s laws on religion and created conflict in the communities where they practice. The monks and nuns say they have respected all Vietnamese laws and are being persecuted because Nhat Hanh counseled Vietnam’s president to end government control of religion.
On Dec. 17, Nhat Hanh’s followers asked the French government for temporary status as refugees. They are still awaiting a reply. It is not clear whether Vietnamese authorities would allow them to leave even if France welcomed them.
Police and government officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.
A government spokeswoman has previously described the conflict at Phuoc Hue as a conflict between two Buddhist factions.
But leaked government documents indicate the government has directed the efforts to break up Nhat Hanh’s Vietnamese followers. Hanoi also refused offers from two provincial chapters of the officially sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Church to let Nhat Hanh’s followers practice at local pagodas.
About 200 monastics left Phuoc Hue in small groups earlier this week. Several groups have been pursued by police and forced to leave each time they try to settle somewhere, Sister Natasha said.
She said several dozen are still practicing together, protected by a network of lay supporters. To leave their community, which stresses nonviolence and good works, would be a violation of their vows, she added.
“They are undeterred from their path, even though they must practice underground,” she said.
Vietnam-born Nhat Hanh has been in exile since the 1960s, after being forced out during the Vietnam War by the government of the former South Vietnam for opposing the war.
Amid great fanfare, he was welcomed back to his homeland in 2005, in what many saw as a sign of increasing religious tolerance.
A monk from Vietnam’s official Buddhist Church invited Nhat Hanh’s followers to settle at the Bat Nha monastery in southern Lam Dong province, where they practiced for four years and spent $1 million adding buildings and expanding the property.
The monastics’ relationship with authorities began to deteriorate after Nhat Hanh called on Vietnam’s government to disband its religious police and remove the word “Socialist” from the country’s official name.
They were forcibly evicted on Sept. 27 and then sought refuge at nearby Phuoc Hue.
On Dec. 11, an angry crowd of about 100 arrived while a European Union human rights delegation was visiting. They disrupted the meeting and pressured abbot Thich Thai Thuan, who had welcomed Nhat Hanh’s followers, to sign a document requiring them to leave by Dec. 31.
The last ones left Tuesday evening, Thai Thuan said.
“I don’t understand why the government made them leave,” Thai Thuan said in a telephone interview. “They just want to practice their religion.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Mordred08

    To any American Christians reading this article: this is what religious persecution looks like. And this is why no one listens to you when you complain about how oppressed you are.

  • cknuck

    Mordred that is a level of persecution and does not encompass all Christian persecution. There is a myriad of reasons why people don’t listen and if you are listening to this example what are you going to do about it. I’ll tell you exactly what you are going to do about a injustice you have acknowledged but don’t really care about other than to use it to address your disdain for Christians; nothing, you will do nothing so get off your horse.

  • Mordred08

    ck, you don’t know a damn thing about me or what I care about. I’ll tell you what I don’t care about: a bunch of Christians whining about how oppressed they are because people are allowed to disagree with them.
    “What are you going to do about it?” What do you think I should do about it? I have no idea how to solve this problem, I’ll admit it right now. Here’s a question for you: what are YOU going to do about it? What’s your solution, if you care so much?

  • cknuck

    Questions you should ask before you shoot off your mouth about people you don’t know. My organization is in 20 countries helping situations just like this and although we are not in this area of Vietnam we have worked with many Vietnamese. This article is not about Christians so the attack was totally unnecessary.

  • JC

    Please go and see what Thich Nhat Hahn says what you can do to help. It would be more useful than this debate.

  • cknuck

    Sounds as though they are not allowed to settle or leave so their activities are forced to go underground. I wonder if the government has taken into account these circumstances could facilitate growth.

  • Rico Vicino

    In Viet Nam, as in many societies, resistance is organized around religious sects. Until the American War, many splinter groups had their own militias (see: Cao Dai). Religious oppression there is not about religion; its about political power and control. Most Viet Namese practice their religion without interference; even receiving financial aid from the government to build temples and cathedrals (see: Plei Khu).
    The Communists (though I’m not sure that description is accurate anymore) are very touchy about the amount of power various sects have.
    Here in America, resistance to the government is less reliant on religion (I said “less”) and therefore receives less attention.
    I belong to a Veterans anti-war group (Veterans for Peace. We have gotten a lot of pressure from the government. We have been infiltrated by police spies (yes, I have proof) and our demonstrations have been marred by agent provocateurs who have committed acts of vandalism in our name.
    True, this has not risen to the level of persecution in Viet Nam; but the principle is the same.
    I have made six trips to Viet Nam and interviewed monks and priests. The best idea I have heard yet, is to ask Thich Nhat Hanh what he would like us to do. I intend to do that. He’s a remarkable man. – Rico*

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