Vietnam's 'illegal' Buddhists seek French asylum

AFP, Dec 18, 2009

PARIS, France -- Several hundred followers of a banned Buddhist group in communist Vietnam on Friday asked for asylum in France, where their leader is based, claiming that they face persecution at home.

"These monks are no longer safe. The Vietnamese government is not able to protect them. We are therefore appealing to the French tradition of protecting the victims of persecution," movement spokesman Phap Linh told AFP in Paris.

Linh was speaking after a delegation from the group visited the Elysee Palace, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's official residence, to submit a formal request for temporary asylum for 400 monks and nuns.

Sarkozy was himself away at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, but Linh said that his office had accepted the letter, adding that the request would be temporary as "we are convinced the regime will change its position."

The delegation was made up of Buddhist monks and nuns from Vietnam, France, Britain and the United States and was accompanied by Anh Dao Traxel, former French president Jacques Chirac's Vietnamese-born adopted daughter.

They represent followers of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist leader who is already based in southwestern France. The asylum-seekers say that mob attacks will force them to leave their Vietnamese base.

Earlier this month, followers of Nhat Hanh's tradition were threatened by gangs wielding batons and hammers at the Phuoc Hue pagoda in central Vietnam, where 200 of them had been sheltering since they fled the Bat Nha monastery.

All religious activity remains under state control in Vietnam but the government says it always respects the freedom of belief and religion.

"For the authorities, we are illegal," Trung Hai, a monk representing the group, said last month in Geneva, as the movement began its campaign to seek protection in the West.

The US-based pressure group Human Rights Watch has said the ousting of Nhat Hanh's followers was "clearly linked to his call for religious reforms".

Last week, about 100 people noisily descended upon the pagoda for three days demanding the departure of the devotees until finally, the abbot said, he had no choice but to promise they would leave.

"We really don't have any place to go," a nun told AFP on Friday.

French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said on Thursday that France was "following this matter with the greatest attention" in close liaison with European Union partners.

"We hope that the different parties involved, the pagodas which wanted to welcome the faithful, the local people and authorities, will be able to reach a solution," he said, when asked about the devotees' plan to seek asylum.

In Vietnam, the Buddhist nun said that she and the other young monastics hope any refuge in France is only temporary. Other temples in Vietnam were too afraid to house them, she said.

"We love Vietnam and we would like to help the people here," she said.

A crowd first arrived at Phuoc Hue on December 9, disrupting a fact-finding visit by the European Union, witnesses said.

"The vigilante action... is a real slap in the face to the EU," Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Wednesday.