Buddhists, shrine dispute temple access


For the Recorder

AURIESVILLE -- A property dispute between The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville and the World Peace and Health Organization is nowhere near resolution before their second appearance in Montgomery County Court on July 18, according to Father George Belgarde and WPHO spokeswoman Jennie Wong.

The dispute centers on a pair of access roads leading to a building the WPHO bought from the Shrine in 2006.

The former Jesuit retreat house was the first property the WPHO purchased in Montgomery County. According to Wong, the building was purchased for $595,000 and they have spent close to $2 million renovating it.

"We fell in love [with the building] at first sight," said Wong. "The reason for being here is to invest. It is a place that should attract tourism and also prosper the economy."

The purchase agreement included an addendum that required the WPHO to build its own access road to the property by 2007, according to Father George Belgarde, director of the shrine. The leader of WPHO, Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi, speaking through a translator, said that the road was finished by 2009.

The new access road was named "Friendship Road" by the WPHO. After it was built, the WPHO and tourists visiting the shrine continued to use both roads to access the former retreat house, now the headquarters of the Western Supreme Buddha Temple and the WPHO.

According to Wong and Holy Master Shi, there was a friendly relationship between the WPHO and the former Shrine Director Father Murray. He allowed a portion of "Friendship Road" to be built a few feet onto the shrine property and did not oppose the continued use of the shrine's road to access the temple.

There has been little communication between the WPHO members and Father Belgarde since he became the shrine director, according to both parties.

On April 1, shrine employees erected a blockade on the Shrine Road just before the Buddha Temple, preventing anyone from accessing the it using the road.

Signs installed by the shrine mark the barricade as the "End of Shrine Road" and warn drivers "No Driving on [the] Lawn" to go around the barricade.

The WPHO has since erected a sign behind the barricade that reads "Welcome to Western Shrine. Please enter via Friendship Road. Thank you," with an accompanying map to access to Friendship Road.

The Shrine Road that used to lead to the temple also leads to Father Belgarde's personal residence and the shrine offices. Signs at the bottom of that road now read "dead end"."

Father Belgarde's lawyers also sent a letter to the WPHO on April 1, which indicated that the blockade was built because of "tremendous traffic" on the shrine's road leading to the temple.

When asked about the blockade and the property dispute, Father Belgarde declined to comment extensively because the issue has been brought to court, beyond saying that there is "no dispute."

Elise Miao, a preacher and member of the WPHO, claims that Father Belgarde once blocked the access road with a riding lawnmower when she was driving on it, making angry gestures at her.

"In the time when we first bought this property, we knew that we had to build our own road," said Wong. "Nothing had been mentioned that after we build our own road they would block the road. It is an isolation not only physically but also spiritually. And also it is a very bad impression ... having confrontations in this tourism spot."

In response to the question of "tremendous traffic" mentioned in the letter, Wong said, "I think that is maybe an excuse."

After the blockade was put in place, a member of the WPHO tried to contact the shrine to resolve the issue, but was unsuccessful according to Wong. Member Yik Cheng then filed a lawsuit against the shrine, Father Belgarde, and maintenance worker Larry Steiger for erecting the blockade.

The crux of the dispute is in the interpretation of the addendum to the sale of the former retreat. The shrine employees apparently thought that the construction of the new access road meant the WPHO would no longer use the shrine's road for any reason, and the WPHO seem to have believed that both roads would continue to provide access to the temple.

Montgomery County Judge Felix Catena presided over the first court appearance by Father Belgarde and the WPHO representatives on June 19, where he adjourned until July 18, during which time the two groups were supposed to meet privately to come to an agreement.

A meeting date was scheduled for June 25 at 10:30 am. Father Belgarde was present with his lawyer, and six members of the WPHO planned to attend the meeting. When they arrived, there was a verbal argument, according to Wong and other witnesses.

"[Father Belgarde] just yelled at us to get out of his property. They shut the door and then kept every one of us out of there," said Wong.

"We tried but it didn't work," said Belgarde of the meeting, citing the fact that there were six members with "no authority" as the reason the meeting did not take place.

On July 3, a surveying stick was placed in the middle of Friendship Road where it crosses into the shrine's property, according to Maio. The WPHO has left it in place and driven around it to avoid confrontations.

The WPHO has had members write letters to the head of the New York Jesuit province, President Obama, the Pope, and local mayors for support, according to Wong and Maio.

"[The blockade] is an action of confrontation. An action to arouse a dispute between neighbors," said Holy Master Shi. "We understand that the whole district is Catholic people, but we are being friendly to them, we are not going to have any conflict with them."

"There is no dispute," contends Father Belgarde. "[The road] is the shrine's property."