Image: Thich Huyen Quang
Afp  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Thich Huyen Quang, the 4th supreme patriarch of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. He was 87.
updated 7/5/2008 10:51:50 PM ET 2008-07-06T02:51:50

Thich Huyen Quang, the patriarch of an outlawed Buddhist church in Vietnam who spent more than two decades in and out of house arrest, died Saturday after months of ailing health. He was 87.

Quang led the Unified Church of Vietnam for 16 years and was an outspoken proponent of religious freedom and human rights.

He had long been confined to the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in the southern province of Binh Dinh. But despite his age and ailing health, Quang fought for his cause until the end.

He died of multiple organ failure in his monastery, where he had asked to be taken from a hospital on Friday, said Penelope Faulkner, international relations officer of the International Buddhist Information Bureau in Paris, which serves as a mouthpiece for the outlawed church.

"He was a real pioneer, and that's why Vietnam kept him isolated and they wanted to keep him out of the way," she said. "He kept determined to the very end."

Peaceful passing
The church's deputy leader, Thich Quang Do, 80, broke out of house arrest from his monastery in Ho Chi Minh City to be at Quang's side when the patriarch was hospitalized, Faulkner said. Do held a prayer service after Quang's death and plans to oversee a funeral scheduled for next week, she said.

Buddhist monk Thich Minh Tuan said Quang's followers are preparing a "simple but solemn funeral" and he will be buried at the pagoda.

"He passed away very peacefully with many of his followers at his bedside," Tuan said.

State-controlled media over the past few days have accused Do, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and other senior members of the banned church of attempting to use Quang's death for "personal political gains."

Vietnam's Communist government allows only a handful of officially approved religious groups to worship, outlawing all other sects.

Outlawed group
The Unified Buddhist sect was effectively banned in 1981 when the group refused to merge with the state-sponsored Buddhist Church of Vietnam. It has since been seen as a threat to the government's authority.

Despite the Unified Buddhists' longtime standoff with the government, there were signs of a thaw in relations in 2003 when Quang had an unprecedented meeting with then-Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in Hanoi to discuss religious freedom.

The meeting was heavily promoted by state-run media with pictures prominently displayed in newspapers of the two sitting together chatting.

But the détente deteriorated rapidly within the following six months, with the government launching a new crackdown on members of the outlawed group after it held a meeting in October 2003 to elect a new church leadership.

At that time, security police surrounded Quang and Do and several other followers as they tried to leave the monastery. Authorities accused them of carrying state agency documents that contained national secrets.

Since then, both Quang and Do have been confined to their respective monasteries and have been under police surveillance, their followers say. Vietnam's government denied the monks were under house arrest, but police arrested Do at a train station in 2006 when he tried to leave Ho Chi Minh City to visit Quang.

Religious clashes
Religious freedom is guaranteed by Vietnamese law, and Hanoi says that only lawbreakers are jailed. The government last year repealed a law allowing house arrest without criminal charges, though human rights groups say dissidents are still harassed and jailed.

Quang and his church have generated much international attention over the years, with human rights groups repeatedly calling on the government to release the leaders and allow followers to worship freely.

Foreign officials have also criticized the government's human rights record and met with Quang and Do during trips to Vietnam.

Buddhism is the primary religion among Vietnam's 86 million people. The government has also clashed with other religions in recent years, mostly for political activities. It has sentenced Roman Catholics, Protestants and followers of other religions to lengthy jail sentences.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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