Senior dignitaries of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) from Europe, Canada, the United States, Asia, Australia and New Zealand gathered at the Quang Duc Monastery in Melbourne, Australia on 10-12 October 2003 to attend a Special Conference of the UBCV, convened at the request of the UBCV leadership in Vietnam. The highlight of the Special Conference was a Ceremony on Sunday 1é2th October proclaiming the Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang as the Fourth Supreme Patriarch of the UBCV. 134 Buddhist dignitaries recited prayers before an audience of 5,000 Buddhists, many of whom had travelled from Europe and the USA to attend the event. This Ceremony could not be held in Vietnam because of the government’s unabated repression against the outlawed UBCV.
The aim of this Special Conference was to develop and finalize decisions made by the UBCV leadership at a Preparatory Meeting held at the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh Province on October 1st 2003. A video-tape of this meeting, sent clandestinely from Vietnam, was projected at the proclamation ceremony. In this intensely moving footage, Buddhists witnessed this first step towards a de facto re-establishment of the UBCV’s right to existence. Indeed, this is the first time since 1977, when the Communist authorities began a concerted campaign to suppress the UBCV, that Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Quang Do and over 60 UBCV dignitaries have met together in Vietnam to adopt decisions on the UBCV’s future. The film showed Venerable Thich Huyen Quang delivering the Opening Speech to the Preparatory Meeting in Binh Dinh, Venerable Thich Thien Hanh reading the UBCV leadership’s Announcement on the convocation of the Special Conference in Melbourne; Thich Quang Do reading the list of new appointments to the UBCV’s “Council of Sages” and Thich Tue Sy reading the list of monks appointed to the Steering Committee of the UBCV’s Institute for the Dissemination of the Faith (Vien Hoa Dao).
For the first time in the UBCV’s history, links between Buddhists inside and outside the country were strengthened with appointments of monks both at home and abroad to the UBCV’s leadership and Executive. Of the 25 senior dignitaries in the UBCV Council of Sages, 14 are based in Vietnam and 11 in Europe, Australia and the USA. Three monks in the 16-member Vien Hoa Dao Steering Committee are based in the USA, the rest in Vietnam.
In his Opening Speech, Venerable Thich Huyen Quang recalled : “For the past 30 years, we have continued to practice our faith in a spirit of fearlessness and self-sacrifice, forged by a historical tradition of over 2,000 years. Inspired by this spirit of Intrepidity, we have overcome adversity, confronted vicissitudes, hardships and oppression, resisted the forces of evil and destruction”. Because the UBCV had been banned for so many years and its activities suppressed, declared Thich Huyen Quang, “today, it is time to strengthen our structures and make new appointments in UBCV executive, so we can contribute to building a peaceful and harmonious society in Vietnam”.
In his Message to Vietnamese Buddhists, Venerable Thich Quang Do stressed the historic importance of the UBCV’s Preparatory Meeting in Binh Dinh : “This is the first time in 25 years that so many UBCV monks have been able to gather together in prayer [under the communist regime], and the first time in 25 years that UBCV dignitaries have been able to hold a meeting inside Vietnam”.
Addressing Buddhists inside Vietnam, he exhorted them to overcome fear and pursue the Buddhist mission to deliver fellow beings from suffering : “To face up to the hardships, obstacles and oppression that confront us every day, we Buddhists must live in a spirit of fearlessness. Don’t be afraid… By developing the spirit of Intrepidity, we can help others to overcome their fear and calmly confront all dangers and repression”. To Buddhists outside Vietnam, he said : “I ask you to be our Messengers, to tell the world about the hopes and aspirations of all UBCV Buddhists in Vietnam. Tell them about our legitimate demands that the Vietnamese authorities respect religious freedom and reestablish the legal status of the banned UBCV… We call for the respect of all (human) rights, not only for the Buddhists, but for all the people of Vietnam. How can we spread Buddha’s teachings if we have no freedom of _expression ? How can Buddhist scriptures be handed down if we have no freedom of the press ? How can we practice Buddhism together if we have no freedom of assembly or association ? Never, over the past ten centuries, have Vietnamese Buddhists been denied these fundamental freedoms and rights. Therefore, Buddhism must be allowed to exist and flourish freely amongst the Vietnamese people today, so that it can contribute its immense potential to enhancing the people’s material and moral welfare, and stimulate their spiritual, cultural, educational, social, economic and political development.”
After three days of discussion and debate, the UBCV delegates from Asia, Europe, Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand unanimously adopted a 4-point Resolution :
a) pledging full support to the efforts of the UBCV leadership in Vietnam to reorganize its structures in order promote Buddhist teachings and expand its activities in the cultural, educational and humanitarian domains;
b) pledging full support to the UBCV leadership in Vietnam in its efforts to mobilize international support for the re-establishment of the UBCV’s legal status; calling on the Vietnamese government to immediately guarantee the UBCV’s right existence and full freedom of religious activities; to return all UBCV property confiscated by the State; to release all UBCV monks, nuns and followers detained for the peaceful expression of their religious beliefs;
c) pledging full support to the UBCV leadership in Vietnam in its peaceful efforts to build a society founded on tolerance, democratic principles and human rights;
d) resolving to embark on a global campaign to introduce Vietnamese Buddhism to the world community; to encourage Buddhist lay-followers to develop Wisdom and Compassion in order to participate more effectively in improving people’s welfare and enhancing their quality of life; to encourage and assist young Vietnamese to be conscious of their cultural identity, whilst remaining open to universality and the progressive evolution of the modern world.
At the closing ceremony, following a presentation by Mr Vo Van Ai, Director of the Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau on the recent arrests and harassment of UBCV leaders in Vietnam, the 134 UBCV dignitaries and 5,000 Buddhists unanimously adopted the following statement :
on the grave religious freedom violations against UBCV leaders Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Quang Do and four members of the UBCV Steering Committee
We, the undersigned, monks nuns and lay-Buddhists representing chapters of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam in Asia, Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand gathered at the UBCV Special Conference in Melbourne, Australia, consider :
1. that the recent incidents in Tuy Phuoc district, Binh Dinh Province on October 8th 2003, whereby 40 undercover Security agents intercepted a minivan transporting senior UBCV dignitaries, are an assault on human dignity and a grave violation of the right to freedom of movement enshrined in the Vietnamese Constitution and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Vietnam acceded in 1982. Passengers in the vehicle included the Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, Patriarch of the UBCV, the Very Venerable Thich Quang Do, Head of the UBCV Institute for the Dissemination of the Faith (Vien Hoa Dao), Venerables Thich Tue Sy, Thich Thanh Huyen, Thich Vien Dinh and Thich Vien Ly, members of the UBCV Vien Hoa Dao Steering Committee, three other UBCV monks and two lay-followers;
2. that the ensuing stand-off with the local authorities, during which Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, 86, Venerable Thich Quang Do, 75, and other monks were held in their vehicle in the hot sun from 5.00am until 2.00pm, is a grave violation of human rights and religious freedom;
3. that the spontaneous, non-violent demonstration in which 200 Buddhist clergy and 1,000 Buddhist followers formed a human wall around the minivan to protect these Buddhist elders from harassments by underground Security agents demonstrates a deep-seated popular discontent with official disregard for the law. Thanks to this outburst of public protest, the authorities authorized the vehicle leave the area at 3.30 pm ;
4. that on the following morning (October 9th), after the group of UBCV dignitaries had spent the night at Linh Son Pagoda in Van Gia, Security Police waylaid them at Luong Son, 25 kilometres from Nhatrang and prohibited them from travelling to Saigon. Security agents handcuffed several of the monks, took them separately to places and subjected them to “working sessions” without any explication. After eight hours intense questioning, Security Police forcibly returned Venerable Thich Huyen Quang to the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh, and took Venerable Thich Quang Do, who had fainted during the interrogations, to the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon. Venerables Thich Tue Sy, Thich Vien Dinh, Thich Thanh Huyen and Thich Nguyen Ly remained in custody until October 11th. Security Police focused interrogations on the recent UBCV Assembly at Nguyen Thieu Monastery, pressing them to reveal the names of monks appointed to new functions, the list of new appointments etc… They also threatened the group with reprisals if they accepted any function in the UBCV Steering Committee. This repressive action indicates that the Vietnamese authorities are in fact deploying a full-scale operation to suppress the UBCV, despite the promises made by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in his meeting with the UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang on April 2nd 2003;
5. that the erroneous and deceitful declarations of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry over the past few days are designed to hide Vietnam’s egregious violations of religious freedoms and deceive international opinion.
We therefore solemnly declare :
The Unified Buddhist Church is Vietnam’s traditional Buddhist organization, heir to a 2000-year history of Vietnamese Buddhism. The UBCV welcomes the diversity of different Buddhist schools and organizations devoted to the study and development of Buddhism. But it will never accept political manoeuvres aimed at turning the UBCV into the political tool of any temporal power or political party;
We call upon the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to cease the policy of repression implemented against Buddhists since 1955 in North Vietnam and since 1975 in the South, and usher in a new era of religious tolerance and respect of fundamental human rights, beginning by re-establishing the legitimate status of the banned UBCV and restoring full freedom to Venerable Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do;
We call upon Vietnamese Buddhists at home and abroad to boldly express their legitimate demands for the right to freedom of religious belief and activities for all members of the banned UBCV;
We urge the international community, all governments, international human rights organizations and concerned people to immediately intervene to ensure the respect of religious freedom and fundamental human rights in Vietnam, and denounce the repressive acts perpetrated by the Vietnamese government on 8-11th October against members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.