Bat Nha founder Thich Nhat Hanh

Several hundred members of the Buddhist Bat Nha monastery, followers of internationally-renowned monk Thich Naht Hahn, have been driven into hiding, illustrating Vietnam’s continued failure to respect religious freedom. The monks and nuns left the Phuoc Hue pagoda in Vietnam’s central Lam Dong province, where they have been seeking sanctuary since September 2009, after government sponsored mobs forcibly removed them from Bat Nha. In December 2009, a mob of nearly two hundred people, many of whom were reportedly bused in from distant provinces and paid by the government to protest the pagoda, dragged the Phuoc Hue abbot from his room and forced him to sign an agreement that the sheltered monks and nuns would leave the pagoda and return to their home provinces by December 31. In the days leading up to the deadline, the monks and nuns left Phuoc Hue and dispersed into an underground network of sympathetic laypeople, with a few dozen likely heading to Thailand and France.

Thich Naht Hahn, currently in exile in France, founded the Bat Nha monastery in 2005 while returning to Vietnam for the first time since his 1966 exile. The monastery is part of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), an illegal organization of Buddhists sects, temples and monasteries acting as a progressive alternative to the government-controlled Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC). Since its formation, the UBCV, and especially Bat Nha, have experienced considerableharassment from both the Vietnamese government and traditional Buddhists, critical of the UBCV’s progressive approach. In June 2009, a mob of VBC monks burned the homes of nuns and beat several monks at the monastery. According to eyewitnesses, police made no effort to stop the violence.

Although Vietnam’s Constitution and the 2004 Ordinance Regarding Religious Belief and Religious Organization provide for freedom of religion, in practice the highly centralized Communist government retains tight controls on all religious activities. The Office of Religious Affairs officially sanctions and oversees all religious activity in the country. Even state-registered religious groups, including many Buddhist and Christian sects, must give up considerable autonomy and allow government control over clerical appointments and other internal issues.

Unofficial religious groups, like the UBCV and the neo-Buddhist sect Hoa Hao, however, remain in constant standoff with the government. These groups are not allowed to operate educational and training centers or places of worship. National and local security officers have used their broad powers to monitor and detain citizens in order to harass and imprison leaders of unofficial sects. Additionally, the government often pressures ethnic minorities to convert from their traditional religion to a state-sponsored religion.

Enforcement varies considerably. While unofficial groups in some regions of Vietnam are allowed to practice with relatively little interference, the Central and Northwest Highlands, where both Bat Nha and Phuoc Hue are located, experience especially strict enforcement.

Although the monks and nuns of Bat Nha have been driven underground, they remain committed to practicing their faith and serving their communities. Many say they will continue to practice while in hiding, viewing not practicing as a violation of their vows. Sister Natasha, a nun at Thich Naht Hahn’s monastery in France, says that the hiding monks and nuns “are undeterred from their path, even though they must practice underground.” A delegation of monks and nuns from Thich Naht Hahn’s monastery petitioned the French government for temporary asylum for the Bat Nha members. So far asylum has not been granted.