Monks flee from Vietnam sanctuary

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HANOI (AP) | Followers of a world-famous Buddhist teacher say police and an angry mob have forced them out of a monastery in central Vietnam, ending a religious experiment in the communist country that turned into a months-long standoff with authorities.

Followers of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnam-born monk who has helped popularize Buddhism in the West, said about 150 monks were forced from the Bat Nha monastery in Lam Dong province Sunday and about 230 nuns were left on their own Monday morning.

“The Vietnamese government has won,” said Sister Dang Nghiem, speaking by telephone Monday from a monastery in San Diego, where Nhat Hanh is visiting. “Their ‘victory’ is that Bat Nha is completely destroyed. Everything is smashed.”

The dispute is a remarkable turnaround from four years ago, when Nhat Hanh returned to Vietnam after 39 years of exile. His return made the front pages of state-owned newspapers, and many saw his return as evidence the government was easing restrictions on religion.

Authorities originally approved of his group’s activities, but the relationship began to deteriorate about a year ago. The government has been trying to remove the monks from Bat Nha for several months, describing the standoff as a conflict between two Buddhist factions.

Nhat Hanh’s followers, however, say the government is cracking down because their teacher has urged it to end its control of religion and disband the religion police.

Reached by phone Monday morning, Huynh Duc Hoa, the head of Lam Dong’s provincial government, denied that anything had happened at the monastery and hung up without answering further questions.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who was visiting Vietnam on Sunday, told a news briefing that he had expressed “concern” about the situation to Vietnamese authorities and requested more information.

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