Vietnamese authorities are cracking down on an officially unrecognized Buddhist organization with followers around the country ahead of the anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, according to a religious rights group.
The Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) said in a statement Thursday that authorities were targeting the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) in the lead-up to the 2,556th Vesak celebration on May 5.
Religious activity is closely monitored in the communist Vietnamese state.
IBIB said senior monks from the UBCV had faced increasing threats and pressure from police in the central provinces of Thua Thien-Hue, Quang Nam-Danang, Phu Yen, and Binh Thuan to ban celebrations of the traditional Buddhist holiday.
In Thua Thien-Hue, UBCV members had been forced to tear down logos specially designed for Vesak to symbolize the international outreach of the organization, which has members in 80 different countries.
The IBIB said that over the past week, senior monks in the province had been summoned for interrogation and told to sign an indictment of the UBCV and its plans for Vesak celebrations, which the monks had refused to do.
It said the monks had vowed to refuse all indictments and to continue with Vesak celebrations, even if they were forced to hold sit-ins and nonviolent demonstrations in the face of possible police action.
And in Quang Nam-Danang, UBCV Buddhist Youth leader Le Cong Cau told the IBIB that security police had imposed a round-the-clock surveillance on Giac Minh Pagoda, which is the headquarters of the UBCV provincial committee and the organization’s Buddhist Youth Movement.
The IBIB said that the local police station opposite the pagoda had trained a camera on the building’s entrance, and posted an official at the window to take down the license plates of all cars entering the pagoda’s courtyard.
It said around 20 other officials had been permanently posted around the entrance and in surrounding cafes, “ready to intercept anyone who enters or leaves the premises,” preventing the delivery of food and supplies to the pagoda.
“Buddhists from the Giac Minh congregation are obliged to wait until nightfall to secretly bring bags of rice and basic necessities to the monks inside,” the group said.
Senior monks from Giac Minh have also repeatedly been summoned for interrogations related to planned Vesak activities.
The IBIB said that according to Thich Giac Hieu, head of the UBCV’s Phu Yen provincial committee, several monks and nuns, as well as members of the UBCV Buddhist youth movement, had been summoned for interrogations over the past few days.
He said that all had been warned of “serious consequences” if they attempted to attend UBCV Vesak celebrations in Phu Yen this weekend.
The same was true for monks in Binh Thuan province, where UBCV provincial youth commissioner Thich Thong Hai had been called for a “working session,” or police questioning, on April 20.
The IBIB said that Thich Thong Hai had been accompanied by Tran Van Y and Le Cuong, two leaders of the UBCV’s Buddhist Youth Movement, but that police had refused to let the two men follow him into the building.
“During the ‘working session,’ which lasted two hours, People’s Committee officials and police told Thich Thong Hai that the UBCV in Binh Thuan would not be allowed to hold Vesak celebrations,” IBIB said.
“They warned that if the UBCV persisted despite this ban, the authorities would take ‘preventive measures’.”
Vesak is the most important event in the Buddhist calendar, and the IBIB said that UBCV members across the country had expressed concern that authorities will prevent them from celebrating the nearly 2,000-year-old unbroken religious tradition.
“The situation … reflects the continuous harassments and hardships experienced by members of the outlawed UBCV all over Vietnam,” the group said.
The IBIB said that UBCV Patriarch Thich Quang Do, an 84-year-old nominee for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, had also been prevented from preaching to followers at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon, where he is being held under virtual house arrest.
“This ongoing persecution belies Vietnam’s repeated declarations that it ‘respects religious freedom and human rights’,” the IBIB said, calling on the international community to press Vietnam ceasing repression of the UBCV.
Earlier this week, the IBIB had transmitted a declaration from Thich Quang Do calling on Buddhists to maintain their tradition of engagement to “protect the Vietnamese people and nation” during the crackdown, in a message smuggled out from the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery.
“When oppressed by tyrannical dynasties or regimes that denigrate Buddhism, when faced with aggressors who violate our sovereignty or trample on the people’s freedom of opinion, we Buddhists are always on the front line of the movement to eradicate these threats,” the message read.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a congressional watchdog, said the Vietnamese government controls all religious communities, severely restricts and penalizes independent religious practice, and represses individuals and groups viewed as challenging its authority.
Vietnam continues to imprison and detain individuals for religious activity and for advocacy of religious freedom, the commission said, adding that independent religious activity remains illegal while legal protections for government-approved religious organizations are vague.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.