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Reuters : INTERVIEW-Vietnam religious head defends action on monks

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Le Monde - http://www.reuters.com


HANOI, Oct 17 (Reuters) – Two elderly Buddhist monks from an outlawed group accused of possessing “state secrets” are not being detained but their fate depends on the result of further investigation, Vietnam said on Friday.

Ngo Yen Thi, chairman of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, which oversees all aspects of religious activity in Vietnam, including the appointment of leaders, said the issue centered on legal violations, and not repression of religion.

” It is not correct this incident is repression of religion,” he said in a rare interview, referring to a battle between the state and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam that escalated recently when the group tried to reassert its legal status.

” In Vietnam they have committed an offense against the law,” including holding meetings without permission and obstructing law enforcement officials, Thi said. But he denied the men, who are in separate monasteries, are under house arrest or detention.

The two are high-profile religious dissidents. The patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, 86, is in a monastery in the central province of Binh Dinh while his deputy Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Quang Do, 74, is in southern Ho Chi Minh City.

Both were stopped last Thursday in a van on its way to Ho Chi Minh City and accused of having the forbidden documents. Asked what the documents were, Thi said he did not know, but that he had asked authorities for more details.

Vietnam has slapped two years of travel restrictions on three monks in the group for “sabotaging the unity” within the Buddhist community. Hanoi replaced the UBCV with a state-sanctioned group in 1981.

The incidents, along with a closely followed jail sentencing of three relatives of a dissident Catholic priest, will all be assessed by John Hanford, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, due to begin a visit to Vietnam on Saturday.

The visit will run until next Thursday, and Thi said he would meet Hanford for an hour next week. The envoy last visited Vietnam in August 2002.

Asked how the religious situation in Vietnam has fared since then, Thi said, “What we feel is there is much progress.”

But he conceded ethnic minorities living in the Central Highlands who are Protestants might be “facing some difficulties” because the Southern Evangelical Church that oversees that group in the south has recognised several branches against regulations.

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