NEW YORK (RNS) -- In the wake of the Taliban's destruction of historicBuddhist sites in Afghanistan, an independent commission is beingestablished to help preserve sacred sites around the world. The commission hopes to work with international bodies to take stepsto prevent the kind of destruction that caused an international outcryearlier this spring when the Taliban government destroyed ancientstatues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, because the statues were not Islamic.The Taliban labeled the giant statues idolatrous. Although the commission is expected to be based in Geneva, it isbeing launched under the auspices of the Museum of World Religions inTaipei, Taiwan, which is opening this November. The commission is also working in cooperation with the MillenniumWorld Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, which met in NewYork last August and is continuing its work to form an internationaladvisory body of religious leaders. The idea for the sacred site commission comes from Dharma MasterHsin Tao, a Zen Buddhist monk and the founder of the Museum of WorldReligions. Hsin Tao said the March destruction of the Buddhist statues hadcaused him "enormous pain" and he felt it was important thatinternational religious leaders, working with governments and others,identify and help preserve buildings, monuments and artistic artifactsthat face destruction.Besides the Buddhist statutes in Afghanistan, other monuments thathave been destroyed recently include historic mosques in Bosnia andOrthodox churches in Kosovo.
Additional mosques and churches in theBalkans face threats, as do religious sites in Burma, Cambodia, the Holyland, India and Indonesia."These are precious objects and we need to unite together to protectthem," Hsin Tao said in an interview during a recent visit to New Yorkwhere he is trying to enlist support for the commission. "No religionis being spared. "While it is true that nothing in the world lasts forever, thesesymbols need to be preserved. Sacred sites should be as `scarless' aspossible," he said. "World pressure needs to be applied to preservethese artifacts." Though the commission will be launched in November, the commission'sexact role and its relationship with other international bodies willhave to be worked out. Other groups, such as UNESCO and the WorldMonument Fund, have also worked on the issue of preservation ofreligious sites. But not even pressure from them or from governments wasable to prevent the destruction of the Afghanistan monuments. A United Nations resolution denounced the Taliban action and thedestruction of religious monuments and called on governments to protectsites of religious and cultural significance.

Hsin Tao acknowledged the planned commission faces obstacles. Hesaid, however, he hoped the commission -- which would include political,cultural, academic, artistic and religious figures -- would have adegree of moral authority to pursue an agenda of preservation and do sooutside normal governmental channels. He said having one independentcommission could mobilize international response to the destruction ofmonuments.

The Tapei museum is funding a study of endangered sites to determinethe extent of damage to sacred sites and monuments and also determinewhich sites face continued threats. From there, Hsin Tao said, thecommission can chart "a course of action." The inauguration of the commission and the opening of the Taipeimuseum are related events connected to the Millennium World PeaceSummit, which gathered some 1,000 leaders for four days of meetings atthe United Nations and elsewhere in New York. The summit was not anofficial United Nations event but marked the first time that such alarge group of religious leaders had met together at the world body'sheadquarters. Leaders attending the event signed a commitment to world peace andagreed to form an advisory council of world religious leaders that couldbe used by the United Nations in its efforts to diffuse internationalconflicts. The summit was criticized by some of the attendees, includingthe Rev. Konrad Raiser, the general secretary of the World Council ofChurches, as an often unfocused event that added little to ongoinginterreligious dialogue.

But Bawa Jain, secretary general of the summit, said theinternational advisory council of religious leaders is being formed andwill be called the World Council of Religious and Spiritual Leaders. Hesaid a planning group will meet Oct. 22-24 at the Rockefeller familyestate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., to finalize the structure of the newcouncil.