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Vietnam crowd blocks EU probe of Buddhist conflict
By BEN STOCKING
Associated Press
2009-12-09 07:53 PM
An angry crowd disrupted a meeting Wednesday between European Union representatives and followers of a famous Buddhist monk involved in a tense standoff with Vietnamese authorities, a Swedish diplomat said Wednesday.

The crowd of roughly 100 people forced the EU delegation to postpone its session with followers of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who has popularized Buddhism in the West and sold millions of books worldwide, said Mary Louise Thaning, the delegation leader.

"They were very angry, so it was not useful to continue the meeting," said Thaning, the political counselor at the Swedish Embassy in Hanoi.

Nhat Hanh's followers say they are being persecuted because their teacher called on Vietnam's Communist government to end state control of religion and dismantle the country's religious police. The government says they have failed to follow Vietnam's laws on religion and must return to their home villages.

Wednesday's meeting was at Phuoc Hue pagoda in Lam Dong province, where Nhat Hanh's followers have taken refuge since being forcibly evicted from the nearby Bat Nha monastery on Sept. 27.

The EU delegation returned later Wednesday and succeeded in meeting with the followers and the Phuoc Hue abbot, Thich Thai Thuan, who has welcomed the monks and nuns.

Members of the angry crowd claimed to be longtime members of Phuoc Hue temple, but an assistant to the abbot said he did not recognize any of them.

Nhat Hanh's followers said they recognized several police officers in plainclothes among the crowd.

Calls to police in Bao Loc, the town where Phuoc Hue is located, were not answered.

Nhat Hanh's followers said the crowd returned after the EU delegation left Wednesday and entered the abbot's office, where they were demanding that he sign a statement requiring the followers to leave Phuoc Hue by Dec. 15.

"They are screaming that the abbot isn't worthy to lead this temple," Sister Thuan Khanh, one of 192 monks and nuns taking refuge at Phuoc Hue, said by telephone.

The EU delegation was on a three-day fact-finding visit. They met with the chairman of the local government on Tuesday and were to meet representatives of the province's officially recognized Buddhist church on Thursday. Vietnam only permits state-approved religious groups.

Vietnamese-born Nhat Hanh has lived in exile since being forced out of the former South Vietnam in the 1960s due to his opposition to the Vietnam War. He was warmly welcomed by authorities during a homecoming visit four years ago.

But during a 2007 visit, he suggested to President Nguyen Minh Triet that the government give up its control of religion and consider dropping the word "socialist" from Vietnam's formal name. Since then, relations have deteriorated.

Wednesday's events came two weeks after Vietnam's Committee on Religious Affairs issued a decree rejecting the offer of two monasteries to take in the monks and nuns if they leave Phuoc Hue, according to Nhat Hanh's followers.

The decree was issued Nov. 26, the same day the EU parliament passed a resolution criticizing Vietnam's human rights record and mentioning the events at Bat Nha.

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