HANOI, Nov 26 (Reuters) – Vietnam should remove travel curbs imposed on two leading monks from a banned Buddhist group so they can meet their followers, the recently appointed U.S. ambassador to Hanoi, Michael Marine, said on Friday.
Marine said he had a short meeting this week with one of the monks, Buddhist patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, 87, who is sick in hospital in the central Binh Dinh province.
The United States lists Vietnam as a country that represses religion, and it was not immediately clear why Hanoi had allowed Marine to visit the elderly monk.
A former U.S. Marine and career diplomat, the ambassador has made it clear human rights will be a priority for him in Hanoi.
Quang and Thich Quang Do, his deputy, were accused last year of possessing state secrets. While they await trial they are effectively under house arrest, unable to move far from their residences.
Quang is being treated for an “ingestive haemorrhage” condition, Vietnam has said.
His group, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, was replaced in 1981 by a state-sanctioned Buddhist organisation. It got into trouble when it tried to re-establish itself last year.
“I found him (Quang) to be strong and coherent,” Marine said in his first briefing of foreign correspondents since arriving in Hanoi.
“The issue we discussed is how he wants to proceed in terms of his organisation, what the conditions are,” the career Foreign Service officer and former Marine captain said.
Vietnamese officials had shown their unhappiness and disagreement with U.S. criticism of Vietnam’s religious policies, Marine said, while he in turn had asked for the travel curbs to be lifted.
The envoy said Quang’s deputy had not been allowed to leave southern Ho Chi Minh City to visit his ailing leader.
“I have urged that they be allowed to travel and to communicate with each other,” he said.
Three other monks in the group have been sentenced to three years of similar restrictions, called “administrative watch and restriction,” for disrupting national unity.
In September, Washington added Vietnam to a list of countries that repress religion, which could lead to economic sanctions against its former Vietnam War enemy, with whom it has developed a flourishing trade relationship in recent years.
Hanoi has denied that Quang and Do are under house arrest or that it represses religion. It permits six sanctioned religious groups, including a Buddhist one, to operate.