Local government authorities in Vietnam forcibly evicted monks from a Buddhist pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City on Thursday, while police blocked pagoda supporters from entering the site, clergy members said.
Thich Khong Tanh, the resident abbot in charge of Lien Tri Pagoda which belongs to the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and is located in district two of the city’s An Khanh ward, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service by phone that authorities arrived at the site to read their eviction order this morning.
The Vietnamese government does not recognize the church.
District officials have been threatening to close the Lien Tri Pagoda since August 2014, when they sent resident monks an initial notice after Vietnamese authorities had declared their intention to tear down the structure.
Authorities also planned to demolish two Christian churches to make way for a lucrative development scheme in the Thu Thiem area where all three religious structures are located.
At the time, Tanh told RFA that authorities had offered a payment of 5.4 billion Vietnamese dong (then about U.S. $274,000) in compensation for the pagoda and its land. But he refused to accept the money, saying that authorities were using the clearance order to eliminate the pagoda because it did not belong to the government’s own state-controlled Buddhist church.
On Thursday, he was unable to speak at length about the eviction because of health concerns.
“I was very tired, so they sent me to the hospital in district two for an intravenous transfusion,” he said. “I can’t talk at the moment. I’m very weak.”
Besides serving as a place of worship, the pagoda provides shelter to many rights activists and victims of injustice who go to the city to pursue their quests for justice with government authorities.
District authorities have already built new structures on a nearly 700-square-meter-area where they plan to relocate the pagoda, according to state media reports.
Catholics affected too
Meanwhile, police in the district also blocked other religious activists from leaving their homes, fearing they would interfere with the evictions at Lien Tri Pagoda, monk Dong Minh told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
Anthony Le Ngoc Thanh, a priest at the Roman Catholic Redemptorist Church in Ho Chi Minh City told RFA that security personnel had followed members of the church early Thursday morning as they were going to Mass.
“When we got home, they had set up checkpoints outside our houses,” he said. “Maybe they thought that we would go to Lien Tri Pagoda to interfere their eviction, but we did not intend to do it.”
“We have already condemned the eviction because it is illegal according to Vietnamese law, let alone international law,” Thanh said.
“The Lien Tri Pagoda is a religious institution, and the district has no authority to take their land,” he said. “This authority belongs only to the city. They can’t authorize a lower-level office to do this.”
The district government sent an eviction notice to the pagoda in July, prompting Charles Sellers, chief of the political section at the U.S. consulate general in Ho Chi Minh City to visit Lien Tri and meet Thich Khong Tanh.
On Monday, the district government sent a second official eviction notice to the pagoda.
Tanh told RFA on the same day about the harassment that monks who live at the pagoda have had to endure since they received the notices.
Now there are always five or seven policemen outside the pagoda’s entrance, and they installed two or three cameras to monitor the monks, causing worshipers to stay away, he said.
“During a recent festival, they stopped Buddhist worshippers from entering the pagoda,” he said. “They take pictures of anyone who comes here and stop people from entering the pagoda because they said our pagoda is reactionary.”
Policemen have also followed Tanh on his regular trips to the hospital for treatment for several months, he said
“We can only pray and get out the news, hoping that the international community—people who are interested in religious freedom in Vietnam—will raise their concerns to support us,” he said.
“We are like a lamb led to slaughter,” he said. “They can evict us whenever they want. We have no power. We can only pray.”
‘New urban area’
Authorities have selected the Thu Thiem area of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, as the site of a “new urban area” with zones created for commercial, residential, administrative, entertainment, and educational purposes.
They did not include plans for the establishment of temples, churches, or offices for charity services there, according to the Interfaith Council of Vietnam, which represents five Christian and Buddhist groups.
The group issued an online petition in September 2014 for support in blocking the confiscation of the buildings and the land in Thu Thiem.
In January 2016, the Interfaith Council issued an online notice condemning the suppression of religious freedom in Vietnam. The group also called on the Vietnamese people and the international community to support the Lien Tri monks as they face the threatened demolition of their pagoda.
Reported by Mac Lam and Cat Linh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.