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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Members of Pho Quang Congregation of Vietnamese Buddhists meet to worship outside in the courtyard of their Salt Lake temple.

SALT LAKE CITY — A complicated legal dispute has left members of a Utah religious group out in the cold.

Members of the Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Association of Utah worshiped outside Sunday morning, displaced from the temple at 1185 W. 1000 North.

A legal battle is brewing about who owns the property, and members of the congregation of more than 100 fear it could take the beloved temple away them.

The congregation was notified Saturday morning that it would not be able to access the temple until the matter is resolved in court.

Members of the congregation say their church is being threatened by religious abuse, greed and real estate fraud.

"I think we cherish the place of worship very seriously," said Thuan Tran, founder of the Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Association of Utah.

About 10 years ago, the Utah organization agreed to donate the property to the American-Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Congress in the USA, based in Monterey, Calif., for safekeeping and to provide spiritual guidance.

Last year, that deed was transferred to Buddhist monk Thich Tri Lang without the Utah group's knowledge. Now, the monk has evicted the group, and the temple is being used by a handful of the his local followers.

"Suddenly we were forbidden to do our service on the property where we (have been meeting) for the last 15 years," Tran said.

The eviction has been heartbreaking for those who have worshiped at the temple. The temple serves as a church as well as a sacred burial ground for loved ones who have passed on, including Tran's mother.

"We have the moral duties to safeguard and care for the ashes," he said.

The ashes of Diep Ngoc Thi Veong's husband also are at the temple. Veong, whose husband was a colonel in the former South Vietnamese armed forces, visits the site every Sunday and prays for him.

"Because I want him to hear every Sunday my prayers for him," she said through a translator.

Today, members of the congregation pray that their church will be returned to them.

"They love this place, and they love their religion," said April Nguyen, a member of the congregation, "and they will come here every day if they can."

On Sunday morning, the adult members of the congregation prayed outside the temple, while the children had Sunday school in the parking lot.

It's a testament to their faith, which has been unwavering in this time of hardship.

"Like today, it's very cold, and winter's coming," Tran said.

There are about 15,000 Vietnamese people in Utah, and about 75 percent to 80 percent of those are Buddhist, Tran said. The temple at 1185 W. 1000 North is one of several in the Salt Lake Valley.

Attempts to reach the attorney representing the American-Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Congress in the USA and Thich Tri Lang have been unsuccessful.

Contributing: Jared Page

Email: syi@desnews.com