A zen master famed for spreading Buddhism in the West, and who was once a confidant of the US civil rights leader Martin Luther King, has accused Vietnam's Communist government of dispatching violent mobs to attack his followers and force them from their monasteries.
Thich Nhat Hanh, who fled into exile in France four decades ago and who has long battled for greater religious rights in his motherland, said his followers in Vietnam were being regularly abused. "Our country does not yet have true religious freedom and the government tightly controls the Buddhist church machinery," Mr Nhat Hanh wrote in a letter to supporters. "The Buddhist church is helpless, unable to protect its own children. This is a truth clearly seen by everyone."
The Buddhist leader spoke out after hundreds of his followers were forced to flee when gangs, including members of the police, assaulted terrified nuns and monks. Following the first attack in September, they took shelter in another monastery, only to be targeted again last month.
The government, which has always sought to maintain a firm grip on religion, denies any involvement in the attacks and dismisses them as a dispute between separate Buddhist groups. But supporters of Mr Nhat Hanh say they have been targeted ever since he made a highly publicised appeal to the government to broaden religious freedom.
After spending 40 years in exile in France, he returned to Vietnam in 2005 for a visit which many believed was a step forward in relaxing controls of religious groups, all of which must be registered with the government. Two years later, the Buddhist leader visited again and appealed for greater tolerance when he met the Vietnamese leader, President Nguyen Minh Triet.
In a letter to followers, obtained by the Associated Press, the 83-year-old master, who teaches at his Plum Village monastery in the Dordogne, asked: "Where did the money come from to pay these mobs? Was it tax money?"
Mr Nhat Hanh, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam war, praised his followers for staying calm and likened their behaviour to the example set by the Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. He said they had done so despite some senior monks being "dragged, throttled, choked and thrown into cars as if they were trash cans".
Yesterday Vietnamese officials, who have long pressured Buddhists to join an "official" church and have outlawed "dissident" sects, denied the claims made by the influential religious leader.
"This is a dispute between two Buddhist factions," said Nguyen Ngoc Dong, vice-chairman of the Lam Dong provincial government. "We have tried our best to ensure safety and social order for the people involved. Everything would have gone smoothly if not for the dispute between followers of the Plum Village practice, and the monks and nuns residing permanently at Bat Nha monastery."
Last month, a report by Human Rights Watch confirmed the attacks on the Buddhist leader's supporters and claimed undercover police and Communist party officials were involved. "Vietnam's international donors should insist the government halt the attacks on the monks and nuns in Lam Dong, allow them to practise their religion, and prevent any further violent expulsions," said Elaine Pearson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.