NEW YORK (RNS) -- In the wake of the Taliban's destruction of historic
Buddhist sites in Afghanistan, an independent commission is being
established to help preserve sacred sites around the world.
The commission hopes to work with international bodies to take steps
to prevent the kind of destruction that caused an international outcry
earlier this spring when the Taliban government destroyed ancient
statues 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 is
being launched under the auspices of the Museum of World Religions in
Taipei, Taiwan, which is opening this November.
The commission is also working in cooperation with the Millennium
World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, which met in New
York last August and is continuing its work to form an international
advisory body of religious leaders.
The idea for the sacred site commission comes from Dharma Master
Hsin Tao, a Zen Buddhist monk and the founder of the Museum of World
Hsin Tao said the March destruction of the Buddhist statues had
caused him "enormous pain" and he felt it was important that
international religious leaders, working with governments and others,
identify and help preserve buildings, monuments and artistic artifacts
that face destruction.
Besides the Buddhist statutes in Afghanistan, other monuments that
have been destroyed recently include historic mosques in Bosnia and
Orthodox churches in Kosovo. Additional mosques and churches in the
Balkans face threats, as do religious sites in Burma, Cambodia, the Holy
land, India and Indonesia.
"These are precious objects and we need to unite together to protect
them," Hsin Tao said in an interview during a recent visit to New York
where he is trying to enlist support for the commission. "No religion
is being spared.
"While it is true that nothing in the world lasts forever, these
symbols need to be preserved. Sacred sites should be as `scarless' as
possible," he said. "World pressure needs to be applied to preserve
Though the commission will be launched in November, the commission's
exact role and its relationship with other international bodies will
have to be worked out. Other groups, such as UNESCO and the World
Monument Fund, have also worked on the issue of preservation of
religious sites. But not even pressure from them or from governments was
able to prevent the destruction of the Afghanistan monuments.
A United Nations resolution denounced the Taliban action and the
destruction of religious monuments and called on governments to protect
sites of religious and cultural significance.
Hsin Tao acknowledged the planned commission faces obstacles. He
said, however, he hoped the commission -- which would include political,
cultural, academic, artistic and religious figures -- would have a
degree of moral authority to pursue an agenda of preservation and do so
outside normal governmental channels. He said having one independent
commission could mobilize international response to the destruction of
The Tapei museum is funding a study of endangered sites to determine
the extent of damage to sacred sites and monuments and also determine
which sites face continued threats. From there, Hsin Tao said, the
commission can chart "a course of action."
The inauguration of the commission and the opening of the Taipei
museum are related events connected to the Millennium World Peace
Summit, which gathered some 1,000 leaders for four days of meetings at
the United Nations and elsewhere in New York. The summit was not an
official United Nations event but marked the first time that such a
large group of religious leaders had met together at the world body's
Leaders attending the event signed a commitment to world peace and
agreed to form an advisory council of world religious leaders that could
be used by the United Nations in its efforts to diffuse international
conflicts. The summit was criticized by some of the attendees, including
the Rev. Konrad Raiser, the general secretary of the World Council of
Churches, as an often unfocused event that added little to ongoing
But Bawa Jain, secretary general of the summit, said the
international advisory council of religious leaders is being formed and
will be called the World Council of Religious and Spiritual Leaders. He
said a planning group will meet Oct. 22-24 at the Rockefeller family
estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., to finalize the structure of the new