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Vietnam officials monitor funeral for head of banned Buddhist church

Local authorities attempted to take down banners at a funeral for the head of a banned Buddhist church in Vietnam as plain clothed security officials filmed monks and other guests, one of the church’s leaders told Radio Free Asia.

Thich Tue Sy, 81, of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam died on Nov. 24 at Phat An Pagoda in the southern province of Dong Nai. His funeral ceremony began on Nov. 25 and lasted until Wednesday, when he was cremated.

On the first day of the funeral, provincial authorities and security officials asked that church members remove banners that read in Vietnamese: “Funeral of late Most Venerable Elder Thich Tue Sy – Chief Secretary cum Supreme Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.” 

The request was rejected by the temple’s abbot, who told the officials that they would have to “shoot me to death” in order to bring the banners down,  church official Thich Vinh Phuoc from Phuoc Buu Pagoda told RFA. 

In a blog post for RFA’s Vietnamese Service, musician Tuan Khanh said that one of the provincial officials pointed out that the church is not recognized by the government. 

A monk responded that the officials would need to produce a document stating that the church was illegal, according to Tuan Khanh.

Thich Tue Sy of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam died on Nov. 24, 2023. (Hoang Phap)

Vietnam maintains strict laws on religious activity that require groups to be supervised by government-controlled management boards.

The church, or UBCV, was the main Buddhist organization in south and central Vietnam before the country’s 1975 unification. 

Hanoi effectively banned the UBCV in 1981 because it refused to become part of the state-sanctioned Buddhist church. Since then, church members have repeatedly called on the party to change laws guiding religious freedom in the country.

Banners stayed in place

Thich Tue Sy was arrested in the 1980s and sentenced to death for his religious advocacy. After an international pressure campaign, the sentence was reduced and he was released in 1998. 

For years afterward, he served as one of UBCV’s top monks. He was named leader of the church in September 2022, following the death of Supreme Patriarch Thich Quang Do, a prominent dissident who had lived under de facto house arrest.

At the funeral this week, the banners remained over the main gate and elsewhere at the temple, according to Thich Vinh Phuoc.

“The funeral went well and smoothly, with the attendance of many Buddhist monks and followers from inside and outside the country,” he said. “It took place without many obstacles.”

“However, it was awkward that all the cars of monks and delegations were filmed when they arrived,” he told RFA. “I, myself, was filmed right after I got out of a car and hadn’t had time to fix my clothes.”

RFA contacted Dong Nai People’s Committee spokesman Nguyen Kim Long to ask about the presence of provincial authorities at the funeral. He said he couldn’t answer any questions until he received a request via postal mail.

RFA also emailed Dong Nai Provincial Police with a request for comment. He didn’t immediately respond.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement on Monday that Thich Tue Sy “was a tireless champion for freedom of religion or belief and related human rights, which led Vietnamese authorities to imprison him for more than a decade.”

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Matt Reed.