08/23/2006, 00.00
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Jiangxi: Buddhist abbot forced out of temple for honouring Tiananmen victims

Several sources say the ceremony to honour those who fell in 1989 was used as an excuse. The abbot, a former dissident of Xian, had ousted the head of the local official Buddhist Association, who was accused by the monks of corruption.

Yichun (AsiaNews) – Religious and political authorities of the eastern province of Jianxi have forced an abbot leave his Buddhist temple of Huacheng in Yichun city because he was "guilty" of celebrating a commemoration ceremony for victims of the Tiananmen massacre. Before embracing Buddhism, the abbot was known by the name of Xu Zhiqiang and he led the pro-democracy league of Xian during the 1989 protests. As many other dissidents did, Xu eventually left politics and consecrated his life to religion.

According to local sources quoted by an American group, Human Rights in China, on 19 August, the head of Yichun's Municipal Secretariat, accompanied by police, arrived at the Huacheng Temple and told the abbot that he could choose to resign voluntarily or be forcibly removed through legal channels: Master Shengguan, the name adopted by the former dissident shortly after he entered the temple, was said to be "firm in his resolution to stay in his post".

On that same afternoon, two people identifying themselves as police – without producing any documents – detained a young woman who was a volunteer at the temple "for selling Buddhist books without permission".

The girl was released nine hours later, during which she had been taken to an isolated place and tortured until she accused the abbot of having sexual relations with her. Shortly after her release, the girl rejected her statement however it served as an excuse for the authorities to force the leader to leave the temple.

According to other sources of the province, six of the most important officials of Yichun are involved in the intimidation campaign against the temple: the Party Secretary Song Chenguang, Mayor Yang Xianping, the People's Consultative Conference Chairman Zhou Yafu, the Religious Affairs Bureau Director Yang Xu, the United Front Department Director Xu Jianyuan and the Buddhist Association Chairman Miao'an.

Before Master Shengguan was elected in February this year, Huacheng Temple was run by the head of the official Buddhist Association and the local Deputy Party Secretary Liu Yinghai. The monks accused the two officials of corruption on several occasions, as well as expropriation of funds and routine interference in the operations of Huacheng Temple.

For example, under the pretext of "developing the temple", Liu sold a large piece of farmland owned by the monks to investors. Of the more than four million yuan proceeds from the sale, one million yuan was allocated to compensate peasants who used to live and work on the land, and the rest simply vanished.

So the monks elected a new abbot who restored the temple's ancient dignity by cancelling the contracts agreed by the two officials and introducing the procedure of reading a monthly financial account to the entire community. This incurred the wrath of the officials who had even contracted – thanks to huge bribes – the construction of a new central temple.  

Now the officials have spirited Master Shengguan away by using the excuse of a ceremony to honour victims of 4 June 1989 and thanks to a statement extracted under torture.

Xu Zhiqiang, the abbot's lay name, first came to the attention of the Communist authorities in 1988 when, together with a dissident journalist Liu Binyan, he published a series of articles denouncing the regime. The following year, he organized protest marches against corruption in Xi'an, where he set up and headed the Xi'an League for Advancement of Democracy. In June, he went to Beijing to commemorate victims of the army crackdown led by the tanks of Li Peng in Tiananmen Square and on November 17 he was arrested and imprisoned in the Shanxi province prison. Following his release on September 1, 1990, Xu continued to promote democratic reform in China until 2002 when, nauseated by politics, he joined the Buddhist temple of Wuzu to become a monk.

In September 2004, he joined a public manifestation calling for the release of an imprisoned adherent of the Falun Gong, Wu Yunrui, accusing former Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, of "inhuman acts against his people, depriving them of their religious freedom".

In August 2005, Master Shengguan became a lecturer in the history of world Buddhism at the Jiangxi Buddhist Institute and the following year, he was asked by the monks of Huacheng Temple to lead their community. No one knows where he is at the moment.

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