Local authorities in Kon Tum province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region have destroyed a pagoda belonging to the independent Unified Church of Vietnam.
Police and dozens of local officials from Plei Kan town and Ngoc Hoi district descended on the Son Linh Pagoda in the early hours of Tuesday morning. By 11 a.m. the pagoda had been completely demolished. The abbot, Thich Nhat Phuoc, was visiting another pagoda in Vung Tau province, some 600 kilometers (373 miles) south, at the time.
His mother, Ngoc Luong, who lives about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away, went to the pagoda when she heard it was being destroyed but was prevented from entering the area by the police.
“In the early morning, I received a call from Nhat Hoa [a monk at the pagoda], so I went down. I asked to enter but the authorities did not let me in and others kicked me out,” she told RFA.
“I said I was Mr. Phuoc’s mother and asked them to let me in to take out his belongings because he’d gone away a few days ago. They still wouldn’t let me in.”
A video provided by Luong shows police officers and people in plain clothes blocking her motorbike, preventing her from entering the area.
She said local government workers carried Buddha statues and worshiping tablets out of the pagoda and then tore down the wooden building with chainsaws, cranes and excavators. According to Luong, one told her Son Linh was not a pagoda but a temporary house and her son was not a monk. She said another snatched her camera and two more grabbed her hand, forcing her to the floor.
A monastery was established on the site in 2009 and a temple was built there in 2018. The following year the Ngoc Hoi district government demolished it, so the monks replaced it with a temporary structure made of wood and corrugated iron.
The abbot of Thien Quang pagoda in Vung Tau province bought the land and asked his disciple, Thich Nhat Phuoc, to come and look after it. Phuoc turned it into a place of worship, visited by many local Buddhists. However local authorities said the building had been built illegally on farm land and refused the abbot’s petitions to rebuild the temple. When monks renovated the temple last year so they could live there the Church was fined by local authorities.
On Oct, 27 this year, the People’s Committee of Ngoc Hoi district ordered the abbot to dismantle the building within 45 days saying: “The illegal construction of houses on agricultural land … causes difficulties for land management, affecting security and social order in the area.”
This month Plei Kan town authorities ordered the abbot to comply with the request by Dec. 12, otherwise they would destroy it and charge him the cost of the demolition.
Phuoc told RFA many people had built houses on agricultural land nearby but had not been forced to destroy them. The abbot said the real reason authorities destroyed the pagoda was because he refused to join the Vietnam Buddhist Church, a religious organization that is a member of the State-linked Vietnam Fatherland Front.
“They find ways to suppress and destroy independent pagodas that do not follow the Vietnamese Buddhist Church,” he said. “They do not recognize independent Buddhist institutions as temples.”
RFA called the heads of the People’s Committees of Plei Kan town and Ngoc Hoi district, but no one answered the phone. Emails requesting information on the pagoda’s destruction went unanswered.
Authorities have destroyed many more places of worship belonging to the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and prevented others from operating. They include Lien Tri Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City; Phap Bien, Dat Quang and Thien Quang pagodas in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province; Van Linh pagoda in Lam Dong province; and Thong Linh pagoda in Dak Lak province.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Dec. 2 he was putting Vietnam on a “Special Watch List” because it “commits or tolerates serious violations of religious freedom.”