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dpa : Crowds greet leader of banned Buddhist sect in Vietnam

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HANOI, April 8, 2003 (dpa) – Large crowds of flower-bearing monks and followers greeted the elderly patriarch of a banned Buddhist sect when he made a rare visit to the central Vietnamese city of Hue, an eyewitness and religious sources said Tuesday.

More than 1,000 people greeted Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, 86, the leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, when he arrived in Hue and the patriarch was carried out of the station on the shoulders of followers, according to a statement from the Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau.

The patriarch, who has been under effective house arrest since 1981, came to Hanoi for medical treatment last month and on Sunday was allowed to travel to Hue – described by IBIB as “the capital of Buddhist dissent against the Communist regime”.

An employee at the Hue railway station confirmed large crowds turned out to greet Quang on Monday morning, though she could not estimate the numbers.

“I saw a lot of monks standing in rows in bright sunshine to solemnly welcome someone. I was told he was from Hanoi,” the railway employee said by telephone Tuesday. Several other railway workers, however, denied there had been any crowds on Monday.

International concern over Quang’s continued detention has intensified over the past year, and recent moves by the Communist Party could signal that the church’s banned status might be reviewed – although skeptics see the moves as a publicity ploy.

While in Hanoi, diplomats were granted access to Quang for the first time in more than 20 years.

The U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Raymond Burghardt, visited the patriarch Friday in Hanoi, an embassy spokesman said Tuesday.

“We hope that that meeting will lead to positive steps such as release of the patriarch and greater religious freedom in Vietnam,” the U.S. embassy spokesman said.

On Wednesday, the Buddhist patriarch was shown on state-run Vietnamese television with Prime Minister Phan Van Khai.

At the meeting with the American ambassador last Friday afternoon, the Buddhist leader claimed that “almost all” Buddhists in Vietnam follow the Unified Buddhist Church, according to the IBIB.

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