PARIS, 30th May 2007 (IBIB) – Whereas Buddhists around the world are preparing to celebrate the 2551st Anniversary of the Birth of Buddha, or Vesak, tomorrow, 31st May 2007, the Vietnamese authorities have banned the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) from celebrating this important Buddhist event and prohibited circulation of the Vesak Message by detained UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang. UBCV Buddhists in the southern and central provinces of Thua Thien Hue, Binh Dinh, Phu Yen, Ba Ria-Vung Tau, Tien Giang and Lam Dong told the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) that they have been harassed and threatened by Security Police and prohibited from organizing Vesak ceremonies.
In the central city of Hue, one of the most active centres of independent Buddhism, Venerable Thich Thien Hanh, Secretary General of the UBCV’s Institute of the Sangha and head of the UBCV Provincial Representative Board told IBIB Director Vo Van Ai by telephone that Security Police and officials from the P.38 (religious security police) had systematically threatened and harassed UBCV monks, nuns and followers since they announced the UBCV’s decision to hold a Vesak Ceremony at the Quoc An Pagoda in Hue on 31st May 2007, with an impressive organizing committee of 61 senior monks, nuns, members of the Buddhist Youth Movement and laity. Security Police subjected Venerable Thich Dieu Tanh, Superior monk of Quoc An Pagoda, to continuous harassment, and threatened local Buddhists with “serious reprisals” if they attended the event. Religious Security Police told the monks that they were forbidden to use the name “UBCV”, to read out the 2551 Vesak Message issued by the detained UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang (see IBIB Press Release, 11 May 2007), or display UBCV signs or banners. On 23rd May, the Chief of the Thua Thien Hue People’s Committee Secretariat, Le Quang Vinh sent Thich Thien Hanh a letter ordering him to cancel the Vesak ceremony. The letter stated that the UBCV was an “illegal organization”, that UBCV Representative Board in Thua Thien Hue was thus also illegal, and that Thich Thien Hanh’s title of “Head of the UBCV Representative Board” was a “violation of law”.
Venerable Thich Thien Hanh told Vo Van Ai that UBCV Buddhists in Hue were determined to hold the Vesak ceremony tomorrow despite the ban. “Banning Vesak is an affront to Buddhists in Vietnam and around the world, for the Vesak is recognised by the United Nations as an international religious festival”, he said. “The UBCV has done nothing illegal, we are simply claiming our right to religious freedom guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution and the UN Bill of Rights which Vietnam has signed”. “If the State deems we are illegal, they must give us a fair an impartial hearing before a court of law”.
Thich Thien Hanh said that for the past two years, the UBCV had organized Vesak Ceremonies at the Quoc An Pagoda in Hue without any government interference. “At that time, Vietnam was on the U.S. blacklist of “Countries of Particular Concern”, he said, “so they let us hold the ceremony to prove there was religious freedom in Vietnam. Now Vietnam is no longer on the CPC list, and has succeeded in joining the WTO, it is brutally repressing the religious communities such as the Buddhists, Hoa Hao, and Protestants, and imprisoning democracy activists. This is a historic crime against the people of Vietnam”.
On May 26 2007, Thich Thien Hanh sent a letter to Le Quang Vinh calling on the authorities to withdraw the ban and affirming the UBCV’s intention to go ahead with the Vesak Ceremony as planned. “If the authorities try to prevent us by force, we will oppose them with non-violent resistance”, he told Vo Van Ai. Buddhists in Hue are well known for their independence and resistance to Communist Party control. In May 1993, over 40,000 Buddhists in Hue demonstrated for religious freedom in the largest public protest in Communist Vietnam.
– Venerable Thich Tam Lien, head of the UBCV Representative Board in Binh Dinh province has been subjected to continuous threats by Security Police, along with his mother, who is 100 years old, and forbidden to celebrate Vesak. Last week, when Police ordered him to vote in the legislative elections, Thich Thien Khanh refused, saying : “Why should I vote for people who repress their citizens and persecute religions ?”
– Venerable Thich Thien Khanh, head of the UBCV Board in Phu Yen, has been threatened with expulsion from his Pagoda if he does not renounce the UBCV.
– Venerable Thich Trung The, head of the UBCV Board in Ba Ria-Vung Tau is under all-day Police surveillance and can only visit Buddhist followers secretly at night. Police have warned local Buddhists that the UBCV is an “illegal organisation” and threatens that anyone in contact with UBCV monks will be “punished according to the law”.
– In Tien Giang province, Security Police and officials from the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church have used threats and force to oblige local Buddhists to sign letters denouncing Venerable Thich Minh Nguyet, head of the local UBCV Board, of “activities opposing the State”.
– In Lam Dong Province, Venerable Thich Nhu Tan, Head of the local UBCV Board, is threatened with expulsion from his Pagoda if he persists in plans to celebrate the Vesak.
l The Vietnamese authorities have forbidden circulation of the 2551 Vesak Message issued by UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang. Whereas Vietnam claims to respect religious freedom, Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang states in his Message that “the UBCV is suffering some of the worst repression in over 20 years. I am forbidden to travel to receive medical care. The Most Venerable Thich Quang Do and I… are maintained in isolation and under surveillance”. “In provinces all over the country, members of 20 Representative Boards set up by the UBCV are coerced and repressed”.
In his Message, Thich Huyen Quang urges Buddhists to engage actively for democracy in Vietnam, calling on them to realize the spirit of social justice inherent in Vietnamese Buddhism. This spirit had inspired a 2,000-year tradition of engagement, and helped Vietnam to win independence and preserve its cultural identity through decades of foreign occupation. “Success or failure is not important. What counts is the diamond heart and the unwavering will of every Buddhist follower. As long as this will persists, Buddhism will endure. As long as Buddhism endures, our people will survive, prosper and develop in peace, and humankind will embark on a new era of global friendship and equality”.
Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang also stresses the need to preserve “spiritual integrity”. At a time when Hanoi has made significant concessions of Vietnamese land and waters to Beijing, Thich Huyen Quang said : “Spiritual integrity is no different from territorial integrity. If we take the land that our forefathers so painstakingly built, and give it away to foreign powers, what is left of our people’s nation and homeland ? In the same way, the human spirit must not cower or surrender to illegitimate and immoral forces. Only thus can we bring the teachings of Buddha into the third millennium to forge a path of Peace and face the new challenges of global terrorism and violence”.
Welcoming the United Nation’s recognition of Buddha’s Birth as an international religious Festival, Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang regretted that, “whereas the light of Buddhism shines ever more brightly in the West”, in Vietnam, “spiritual virtues are being gradually destroyed”. “Imposing Monasteries have been built, costly ceremonies organized, but all this cannot hide the fact that the beliefs of religious followers are not respected in Vietnam”.