Slowing lifting an arm from the sleeve of his brown robe, Thich Quang Do flips a switch. Neon lights buzz and flutter before giving way to electricity. The pagoda is full of light.
But empty of people.
Twenty years ago, the Vietnamese government banned the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), of which dissident Mr. Do is one of the most prominent surviving monks. Few religious groups have evoked as much government mistrust. Spirituality-seekers and potential monks have been scared away from this forbidden pagoda, tucked away on a dilapidated side street. Here, where Do was interviewed late last year, the elderly monk and all those who visit him are under constant security surveillance, fueling international criticism of the government's claims of religious tolerance.
Last Friday Do ventured out for a visit on Tet - Vietnamese New Year - to the church's patriarch, Thich Huyen Quang, under house arrest in central Vietnam. By the end of the weekend, international human rights groups announced that Do had been arrested by security police and that his whereabouts were unknown. Returning home on Monday night, Do said he had been arrested on his way to see the Buddhist patriarch, was harassed by police, and then arrested again on the way home. Do and five others were held for seven hours, interrogated, and strip-searched by security police. They accused Do of holding "subversive" documents and "threatened national security," an offense, which if prosecuted, is punishable by death. On Tuesday, Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh rejected Do's claims in a written statement: "There is absolutely no such arrest."
Reached by telephone yesterday, Do said he was "not so well" after his ordeal. But the very fact that Do was set free - just as he was after being prevented by police from handing out aid to flood victims last fall - suggests that the government is growing increasingly conscious of its image abroad, particularly in the US.
Next Tuesday, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, created by an act of Congress, is due to begin hearings on violations of religious freedom here and in other countries. The UBCV's exiled spokesman is due to testify, possibly raising Vietnamese government suspicions that Do and Quang were gathering information to be presented in the US next week.
Do says his visit was timed only to the holiday. "I was there merely for the New Year to wish our patriarch good wishes."
Vietnam is perhaps more concerned than ever about keeping its name out of the international media as a regime of religious oppression. The country, whose campaign for economic renewal led it to open diplomatic relations with the US in 1995, is now waiting for the US Congress to ratify the bilateral trade agreement negotiators reached last year. If Vietnam turns up with an especially poor report card on religious freedom and other human rights, skeptical members of Congress may use the hearings as fodder for their opposition to further normalizing relations with Hanoi.
On the eve of former President Clinton's historic trip here last November, the Washington-based Freedom House released a report citing leaked Vietnamese government documents about the spread of religion. The papers suggested that Communist Party officials here were particularly alarmed by what they said was an increasing number of minorities who were converting to Protestant Christianity. The report recommended cracking down on such conversions, suggesting that the US was trying to spread evangelical Christianity among Vietnam's ethnic minorities as a tool to foment rebellion. An estimated 10 percent of Vietnam is Christian, primarily Catholic, while the UBCV says about 80 percent of Vietnamese considered themselves Buddhist before the Vietnam War.
"Vietnam's point of view on religious freedom has been made clear many times," said a statement by Ms. Thanh of the Foreign Ministry in November. "This information that says Vietnam suppresses religion is distorted and slanderous."
As Hanoi has loosened up some of its ideological rigor in an attempt to compete in the global economy, there's the possibility of renewed interest in religion - as witnessed in post-Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe - something of a last taboo. "I don't think they're fearful of religion because it's religion," says Andrew J. Pierre, a Georgetown University professor who spent four months in residence at the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry last year. "It's fear that through the Buddhist church, there could be the rise of a political protest movement," says Professor Pierre. "The Vietnamese are driven by their economic situation, and the price of that is keeping a tight lid on the politics of the country, and that would include the religious sects."
But in the interview at his pagoda, Do had predicted that such control would continue to slip away and that the party will be unable to prevent a new generation from rediscovering their religious roots. "Now our communication is with the whole world, so they have no way to keep us blind.... The Communist leaders are very afraid. If they reform completely, they will lose power," says Do, a man whose shaven head, burnished cheeks, and smile make him look more like a grandfather than a "outlaw," as he calls himself, with something of a chuckle.
Do says the church has no political ambitions. "We are just for democracy, religious freedom, and human rights. As long as we have no freedom of expression and democracy, we cannot make ... progress."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society