The U.S. ambassador to Vietnam met Wednesday with the patriarch of an outlawed Vietnamese Buddhist church who is under virtual house arrest, the embassy said.
Ambassador Raymond Burghardt “met this morning with Thich Huyen Quang for an hour-long private conversation,” said embassy spokesman Tom Carmichael. He gave no further details.
Quang, 86, heads the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, officially banned by the government when Hanoi created its own state-sanctioned Buddhist Church of Vietnam in 1981.
The two sides have repeatedly clashed, with the outlawed church refusing to accept government control.
Quang lives under heavy guard and constant surveillance at the Nguyen Thieu Monastery near Quy Nhon town in the southern province of Binh Dinh.
There were signs of a thaw in relations early last year when Quang had an unprecedented meeting with Prime Minister Phan Van Khai to discuss religious freedoms.
But the situation had deteriorated rapidly by October, with the Communist government launching a crackdown on members of the outlawed group.
At that time, security police surrounded Quang, his deputy, Thich Quang Do, 74, and several followers as they tried to leave the monastery. Authorities accused them of carrying state agency documents that contained national secrets.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung said the two leaders had long “abused religion to undermine the whole people’s unity and Buddhism” despite leniency shown by the state.
“Stemming from wrongful political motives and personal ambitions, they had intentionally violated laws,” he said.
Both men, who have each spent more than 20 years in jail or under house arrest, have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The United States, the European Union and human rights groups have repeatedly accused Vietnam of religious and political repression. Hanoi says it only holds lawbreakers, not political or religious prisoners.