HANOI, Sept 19, 2003 (AFP) – Security forces have intimidated members of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) against attending an assembly overseen by the church’s highest leaders, the church said Friday.
Only 10 monks attended the meeting at Nguyen Thieu monastery in central Binh Dinh province, including UBCV patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and his deputy Thich Quang Do, a church member told AFP by phone.
« We are surrounded by police but they haven’t done anything yet, » the monk said.
The church’s Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) said police in the central provinces of Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Tri « have been systematically interrogating and intimidating UBCV monks over the past 10 days, since they heard that the UBCV’s two outspoken leaders had called a meeting. »
Friday’s assembly was to focus on the reorganization of the church, including the appointment of new monks to take up functions.
The statement from IBIB said dozens of monks have been summoned to interrogations by police and threatened with reprisals if they attended the assembly or accepted positions within the church, which was banned in 1981 by the communist party.
The only allowed structure is the Vietnamese Buddhist Church (VBC).
The influential leaders Quang and Do were arrested in February 1982 and banished into internal exile by a government wary of budding popular support for the church and its charismatic leaders.
Quang, now 86, has been kept under effective house arrest without charge or trial in the central province of Quang Ngai ever since.
Do, 75, was officially released from house arrest on June 27, two months earlier than scheduled, in an apparent bid to appease the communist regime’s human rights critics.
Vietnam’s foreign affairs ministry denied Friday that monks were being forced not to attend the assembly, saying that the UBCV no longer even existed.
« After the Vietnam Buddhist Unification Congress in November 1981, nine Vietnamese Buddhist organizations, including UBCV, were unified and joined the Vietnam Buddhist Church, » it said in a statement.
« Therefore, the UBCV dœs not exist by name and in reality. »
Security forces and religious officials had sought to strong-arm Do into staying away from the assembly but their tactics failed when he demanded they produce a government order to prevent him from travelling, the IBIB said.
In April, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai met Quang under the glare of television cameras. More recently, other top officials have engaged in a charm offensive to lure Quang into taking a senior position within the state-sponsored VBC, the IBIB said, although the monk has rejected their overtures.
« The fact that authorities are asking this from Quang shows that they recognize his role, » a foreign diplomat in Hanoi said Friday.
« They know they will have to reach a settlement with Quang and Do. They have done a lot already and they won’t stop now. They want to find a solution. »
Hanoi on Friday denied, however, that Quang has been offered any position within the state-sponsored church.
The diplomat noted difficulties in reading the government strategy with respect to the church, pointing to the travails of Thich Tri Luc, a UBCV member who disappeared from Cambodia and was allegedly kidnapped by Vietnamese security police.
Thich is to face trial « soon, » IBIB said last week.
The UBCV is not the only church in Vietnam to be confronted with heavy-handed government intervention — Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly and three of his relatives also languish in prison in what critics contend is a crack-down on all religions.
The US government on Wednesday faced fierce pressure to get tough with the communist country over religious freedom, with a congressional commission urging Secretary of State Colin Powell to nominate Vietnam a « country of particular concern » with respect to freedom of worship.