Followers of a famous Buddhist monk have abandoned the temple in southern Vietnam where they had sought sanctuary and are on the run from police, who have been pressuring them for months to break up their monastic community and return to their home villages.
The students of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who helped popularized Buddhism in the West and sold millions of books worldwide, slipped away from the Phuoc Hue temple under cover of darkness earlier this week, a spokeswoman for the monks and nuns said by telephone Thursday.
"There's no one left there," said Sister Natasha, speaking from the Plum Village monastery in southern France, where Nhat Hanh is based. "They've gone into hiding."
They departed just days before a Dec. 31 deadline set by Vietnam's communist government to vacate Phuoc Hue and return to their home provinces.
The government says Nhat Hanh's followers have violated Vietnam's laws on religion and created conflict in the communities where they practice. The monks and nuns say they have respected all Vietnamese laws and are being persecuted because Nhat Hanh counseled Vietnam's president to end government control of religion.
On Dec. 17, Nhat Hanh's followers asked the French government for temporary status as refugees. They are still awaiting a reply. It is not clear whether Vietnamese authorities would allow them to leave even if France welcomed them.
Police and government officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.
A government spokeswoman has previously described the conflict at Phuoc Hue as a conflict between two Buddhist factions.
But leaked government documents indicate the government has directed the efforts to break up Nhat Hanh's Vietnamese followers. Hanoi also refused offers from two provincial chapters of the officially sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Church to let Nhat Hanh's followers practice at local pagodas.
About 200 monastics left Phuoc Hue in small groups earlier this week. Several groups have been pursued by police and forced to leave each time they try to settle somewhere, Sister Natasha said.
She said several dozen are still practicing together, protected by a network of lay supporters. To leave their community, which stresses nonviolence and good works, would be a violation of their vows, she added.
"They are undeterred from their path, even though they must practice underground," she said.
Vietnam-born Nhat Hanh has been in exile since the 1960s, after being forced out during the Vietnam War by the government of the former South Vietnam for opposing the war.
Amid great fanfare, he was welcomed back to his homeland in 2005, in what many saw as a sign of increasing religious tolerance.
A monk from Vietnam's official Buddhist Church invited Nhat Hanh's followers to settle at the Bat Nha monastery in southern Lam Dong province, where they practiced for four years and spent $1 million adding buildings and expanding the property.
The monastics' relationship with authorities began to deteriorate after Nhat Hanh called on Vietnam's government to disband its religious police and remove the word "Socialist" from the country's official name.
They were forcibly evicted on Sept. 27 and then sought refuge at nearby Phuoc Hue.
On Dec. 11, an angry crowd of about 100 arrived while a European Union human rights delegation was visiting. They disrupted the meeting and pressured abbot Thich Thai Thuan, who had welcomed Nhat Hanh's followers, to sign a document requiring them to leave by Dec. 31.
The last ones left Tuesday evening, Thai Thuan said.
"I don't understand why the government made them leave," Thai Thuan said in a telephone interview. "They just want to practice their religion."