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dpa : Detained Buddhist patriarch meets Vietnam’s prime minister

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HANOI, April 2, 2003 (dpa) – The 86-year-old patriarch of a banned Buddhist sect in Vietnam was shown on state television Wednesday meeting with the prime minister in a surprising move that could signal a softening in the communist government’s hard line on the church after more than 20 years.

Thich Huyen Quang, who has been under house arrest since 1982, was the lead story on state-run Vietnam Television’s evening broadcast. He was shown in his gray monk’s robes chatting with Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, although viewers could not hear the conversation.

The television announcer said that Khai thanked the monk “for his contributions to the revolution” and hoped that he “would continue to make positive contributions to society within his capacity.” Quang’s Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam is not a legally recognized religion in Vietnam because its clergy refuse to submit to the communist government’s approval of its leadership.

However, the aging Quang and his deputy, Thich Quang Do, who has been under house arrest himself since 2001, have been the subject of an intense campaign by overseas Buddhists to have their religion legalized.

It was unclear Wednesday whether the television broadcast was a prelude to such recognition or simply a way to deflect criticism from abroad on Vietnam’s freedom of religion issues as the U.N. Commission on Human Rights meets this week in Geneva.

The broadcast made a point of saying that Vietnam allowed freedom of religion but that abuse of religion for political purposes is a crime.

Quang came to Hanoi earlier this month for medical treatment and was allowed to meet with European and American diplomats. He also met with the head of the Fatherland Front, an umbrella group with strong links to the Communist Party that oversees all non-government organizations and religions.

However, the Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau on Saturday accused Vietnam of trying to quietly transfer Quang to a a remote monastery in Binh Dinh province and claim he had been released while still keeping him under effective house arrest.

The director of the IBIB said he had been told this by Quang himself over the telephone. dpa kj ms

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