From The Associated Press
Followers of a world-famous Buddhist teacher who were forced out of a Vietnamese monastery over the weekend have taken refuge at a nearby pagoda, but they say they have once again been surrounded by police.
The monks’ ongoing standoff with Vietnamese authorities has tested the communist country’s sometimes edgy relationship with religion, which the government views as a potential rival power structure. The government closely monitors all churches in the country.
The Buddhists say the police are now pressuring them to leave the Phuoc Hue pagoda in Lam Dong province, even though local officials of the state-sanctioned Buddhist Church of Vietnam have welcomed them to stay.
The 376 monks and nuns are followers of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese-born monk who helped popularize Buddhism in the West, has sold millions of books worldwide and now lives in France. He was once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King.
Nhat Hanh’s Vietnamese followers sought refuge at Phuoc Hue after being forced out of the nearby Bat Nha monastery Sunday by police and an angry mob. Both are located in Lam Dong province in the Central Highlands, near the mountain resort city of Dalat.
“It is now clear that the police and government are not satisfied with the forced closure and violent eviction of monks and nuns from Bat Nha monastery itself, but are intent on continued, aggressive persecution of this one group of people,” Nhat Hanh’s followers said in a press release posted on a Web site called helpbatnha.org.
Nhat Hanh’s followers say police have been guarding Phuoc Hue 24 hours a day, calling individual monks by name and urging them to return to their hometowns. Under police pressure, 15 monks left Wednesday, they said.
“They are using psychological tactics,” said Sister Dang Nghiem, a nun who was traveling with Nhat Hanh in New York on Thursday. “They are trying to break them down one by one.”
Local officials and the police were not available for comment on the standoff Thursday. Officials from the official Buddhist Church of Vietnam could not be reached.
The abbot of Phuoc Hue, Venerable Thich Thai Thuan, declined to comment.
Authorities say they removed the Buddhists from Bat Nha because the abbot there wanted them to leave. They characterize the dispute as a conflict between two Buddhist factions.
Nhat Hanh’s followers say they are being punished because their teacher called on Vietnamese authorities to end government control of religion.
Nhat Hanh has lived in exile for more than four decades. He was forced out of the former South Vietnam in the 1960s due to his opposition to the Vietnam War.
In 2005, he made a dramatic homecoming with the approval of Vietnamese authorities. His return was seen as a sign that Vietnam’s government was easing its controls on religion.
Nhat Hanh’s followers were invited by Duc Nghi, a member of the official Vietnamese Buddhist Church and abbot of Bat Nha, to settle at his mountain monastery and practice Nhat Hanh’s progressive brand of Buddhism.
They practiced quietly at the monastery for four years, spending nearly $1 million on additional land and buildings, including a meditation hall that held up to 1,800 people. It was frequently filled with visitors from around Vietnam on weekends.
Relations between Nhat Hanh’s followers and the authorities began to sour about a year ago.
Since June, there have been intermittent conflicts between Nhat Hanh’s followers and the police. They climaxed on Sunday.
Nhat Hanh’s followers say the police and mob on Sunday dragged the nuns and monks to nearby vehicle, beating them and grabbing their genitals in an effort to humiliate them.
Police questioned two senior monks and escorted them back to their homes in Nha Trang and Hanoi, where they confiscated their identity documents so that they cannot travel, Sister Dang said.
The two are living under virtual house arrest, said Sister Dang, who has been in regular contact with the monks and nuns in Lam Dong province.