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 failing health. He was 87.
The leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam died of multiple organ failure a day after being transferred from a hospital to his monastery at his request, said Penelope Faulkner of the International Buddhist Information Bureau in Paris, which speaks for the dissident church.
An outspoken proponent of religious freedom and human rights, Quang had long been confined to the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in the southern province of Binh Dinh.
"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."
The church's deputy leader, Thich Quang Do, 80, broke out of house arrest at 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 this week, she said.
State-controlled media over the last 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."
The Buddhist sect was effectively banned in 1981 when it refused to merge with the state-sponsored Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Quang became supreme patriarch of the outlawed church a year later.
Vietnam's communist government allows only a handful of officially approved religious groups to worship, outlawing all others.
Despite the 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.
But six months later, the government launched a new crackdown after the Unified Buddhists held a meeting to elect new church leadership. Quang and Do were accused of possessing official papers with national secrets.
Since then, both monks had been mostly confined to their respective monasteries, their followers say. The government denied that they had been under house arrest.
Quang was born Le Dinh Nhan in 1920 and entered a Buddhist monastery at age 12.