Vietnam denies harassing Zen Buddhist group

Hanoi, Vietnam - Vietnam said Monday that the expulsion of foreign-affiliated Zen monks and nuns from a monastery stemmed from an internal dispute between Buddhist sects, and denied the group had been harassed by government officials and police. Members of the Plum Village Zen Buddhist sect said harassment by mobs including undercover police forced them to leave two monasteries in southern Vietnam's Lam Dong province between September and December.

The group is affiliated with France-based Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

Nguyen Thanh Xuan, deputy chairman of the government's Committee on Religious Affairs, said the group's monks and nuns had clashed with other clerics at the Bat Nha monastery over matters of Buddhist practice and property.

"Everything would have gone smoothly if not for the dispute between followers of the Plum Village practice, and the monks and nuns residing permanently at Bat Nha monastery," Xuan said.

Xuan said internal friction was also responsible for the Plum Village monastics' forced departure in December from nearby Phuoc Hue Pagoda. Phuoc Hue's abbot had offered them refuge after they were forced out of Bat Nha.

Asked why internet videos of the clashes showed mobs of people wearing street clothes, clearly from outside the monastery, harassing the Plum Village monastics and calling on them to leave, officials offered no clear explanation.

"This was internal friction between the Plum Village group and the Bat Nha authorities," said Nguyen Ngoc Dong, vice chairman of the Lam Dong provincial People's Committee. "The local authority has never intervened."

Followers of Thich Nhat Hanh said the group faces discrimination inside Vietnam since a 2008 meeting between the Zen sage and Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet. Hanh reportedly suggested to Triet that Vietnam end government regulation of religion.

Senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Dang Ho Phat said the government had tried to arrange a diplomatic meeting in France to resolve the dispute in October, but that Hanh refused.

Hanh's followers said he had received the invitation too late to reschedule a planned trip to the United States.

Hanh, 83, became famous as a leader of South Vietnam's Buddhist Movement in the 1960s, and has tens of thousands of followers in Europe and North America.

He was allowed to return to Vietnam in 2005 after 40 years in exile, and his spiritual gatherings drew large crowds. But he reportedly fell out of favor after advocating that the government cease regulating religious affairs.

The Communist government requires all religious groups to be registered with the authorities, although in recent years it has approved many new sects.