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January 23, 2003

Detained Buddhist patriarch smuggles message from Vietnam

Hanoi (Deutsche Presse-Agentur) - The detained patriarch of a banned Buddhist order in Vietnam has urged Buddhists to campaign for democracy, religious freedom and human rights in the communist country.

In a letter smuggled out of Vietnam, the Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, 85, called on Vietnamese Buddhists to campaign nonviolently for "ethical and social equality," a press release by the Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau said Thursday.

Quang, patriarch of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, said that economic liberalisation in the past decade has only benefited a tiny minority and not Vietnam's rural population, which makes up more than 70 per cent of the population. "Our society is in crisis, spiritual values are in decline, social problems are rife, society is polarized, cliques and gangs rule the roost with total impunity," Quang said.

Only officially sanctioned religions are permitted in Vietnam. The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam is banned and its top leaders imprisoned or detained.

"UBCV leaders are in prison or under house arrest, and are impeded from accomplishing their mission," Quang wrote in his message. Quang called on Vietnamese Buddhists worldwide to be the voice of repressed Buddhists in Vietnam and campaign for democracy, human rights and religious freedom.

The message by Quang - who has been detained at his home without trial since 1982 - was timed to coincide with the Tet lunar new year, which begins on February 1.

The second-ranking UBCV monk in Vietnam, Thich Quang Do, usually sends a Tet message also, but he has been under house arrest for the last two years.

Vietnam has rejected international criticism by human rights groups over its religion policies, saying that only religions that break the law by engaging in politics are targeted.

"Abuse of religion" is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison under Vietnamese law.

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