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 Religions. 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 these artifacts." 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 monuments.

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 headquarters. 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 interreligious dialogue.

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 council.

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