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U.N. Buddhist event in Vietnam remembers disaster victims
by Grant McCool and Valerie Lee, Reuters, Wednesday, May 14, 2008
HANOI (Vietnam) Victims of China's earthquake and Myanmar's cyclone were remembered on Wednesday when Buddhists opened a rare international religious event in Vietnam, whose critics accuse the government of abusing freedom of worship.
Hundreds of monks in yellow, maroon and saffron robes mixed with government officials and diplomats in suits in a Hanoi convention centre for the week-long U.N. Vesak Day, an annual celebration of Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death.
"In the shadow of these enormous tragedies, the Buddha's message of peace, compassion and love for all living beings brings added urgency," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a message read to the conference, mentioning the devastation of Cyclone Nargis and the earthquake in southwestern China.
The event held since 1999 has drawn more than 1,000 delegates to Hanoi, but Buddhists opposed to state-sanctioned religion in Vietnam asked the U.N. head to call for the release of two prominent monks living under restrictions in their pagodas.
"We are deeply concerned that Vietnam is exploiting U.N. Vesak Day for political ends," the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBVC), which is outlawed in the Communist Party-ruled Southeast Asian country, said in a statement.
The two monks are UBCV Supreme Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and his deputy Thich Quang Do.
In his speech at the opening ceremony, Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet said that he hoped Vesak would improve understanding, "help build a good society, a Nirvana in the real life, to contribute to preventing conflicts and neutralizing wars".
A U.S. government panel and U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) this month recommended that the U.S. State Department reinstate Vietnam on its list of "countries of particular concern" for the worst abusers of religious rights.
Western diplomats and rights group say reports persist from remote areas especially of harassment and imprisonment of followers of various religions.
The government rejects the accusations and says its removal from the U.S. list in November 2006 and hosting Vesak demonstrates its respect for religious practices. Among religions, Buddhism has the most influence on Vietnamese society and its 85 million people.
Vietnam is a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council for 2008-2009 and HRW said the country "should be exemplary, not among the worst" in respecting religious belief and worship.
A government spokesman says "nobody is detained for political views or religion and there are only cases where legal violators are dealt with in compliance with the law".
source: http://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSBKK5494820080514 ?pageNumber=2&virtualBrandChannel=0
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