Followers of a famous Buddhist teacher plan to seek temporary asylum in France after months of pressure from Vietnam's communist authorities to leave pagodas in the country's south.
Some 400 disciples of Thich Nhat Hanh, who has popularized Buddhism in the West and sold millions of books worldwide, were forcibly evicted from the Bat Nha monastery in Lam Dong province in late September. Since then, nearly 200 have taken refuge at the nearby Phuoc Hue pagoda, but they have been ordered to leave by Dec. 31.
The standoff came to a head last week when a crowd of about 100 people, including undercover police, invaded Phuoc Hue and demanded that the abbot kick the disciples out.
"We can no longer withstand the government's intense pressure to disperse," senior monk Thich Trung Hai wrote in a letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy posted on a Web site operated by followers of Thich Nhat Hanh on Thursday. "We must turn to you to ask for temporary asylum in France so that we can remain together."
Vietnamese authorities could not be reached for comment Thursday. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said his government was following the case "with great attention" but would not comment on the request for asylum.
"We hope that the different parties involved, the pagodas that welcomed the faithful, as well as the population and local authorities, will come to a solution," he said.
The government accuses Nhat Hanh's followers of sowing discord and defying central authorities by worshipping without official approval. The monastics say they followed all necessary procedures and only want to meditate and practice together.
Vietnam-born Nhat Hanh, who has been in exile since the 1960s, lives at the Plum Village monastery in southern France, where thousands of people from around the world visit each year to practice his progressive brand of "engaged Buddhism," which stresses nonviolence and good works.
Though he was welcomed home by Vietnamese authorities four years ago, his relationship with the government began to deteriorate after a 2007 visit during which Nhat Hanh suggested to President Nguyen Minh Triet that Vietnam give up control of religion and consider dropping the word "socialist" from Vietnam's formal name.
Associated Press writer Angela Doland contributed to this report from Paris.
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