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Temple demolition plan sparks controversy

Updated: 2013-04-12 22:54
( Xinhua)

XI'AN - A local government's planned demolition of part of a Buddhist temple in northwest China's Shaanxi province, ostensibly to support its application for UNESCO World Heritage status, has sparked controversy among the public over its validity.

Xingjiao Temple, a renowned Buddhist site located in Chang'an district of the provincial capital Xi'an, quit its participation in the application on Thursday afternoon, saying the demolition would affect its religious activities and the normal life of Buddhists.

"If they demolish the buildings under the current plan, it is still possible that the application will be vetoed by the international panel," said Master Kuanshu, the temple spokesman.

"But if Xingjiao Temple takes the initiative to quit, it will not affect the province's application," he added.

According to the government's plan, some of the newer buildings that are unmatched with the original style of the 1,300-year-old temple, including the dinning hall and dormitories, will be demolished by June 30.

The move is part of preparations for an application for UNESCO World Heritage status for several sites in Shaanxi province along the Silk Road, an ancient trade route running from the Middle East to China.

Xingjiao Temple holds the remains of Xuanzang, a famous Chinese monk who traveled to India to retrieve Buddhist scriptures in the seventh century and inspired epic Chinese classical novel Journey to the West.

Zhang Jinlai, who played the Monkey King in a popular 1988 TV adaptation of Journey to the West, commented on the demolition plan on Wednesday on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog service, calling on the religious affairs administration to interfere.

As of Friday evening, Zhang's comments had been reposted more than 180,000 times and received more than 40,000 comments, most of which supported his appeal.

The Buddhist Association of China said it was shocked and worried about the plans for Xingjiao Temple, according to a statement posted on its website on Thursday night.

"Demolishing temple buildings without getting permission from the residing Buddhists seriously violates religious policy and laws, and infringes upon the legal rights of the Buddhist community," it said.

The State Administration for Religious Affairs on Thursday night urged religious authorities in Xi'an to investigate the case and consult local Buddhists before properly acting in line with relevant laws and policies.

Meanwhile, Zhao Xiaoning, an official from the Chang'an district cultural heritage administration, said he was saddened by reports criticizing the government over its handling of the UNESCO application.

"Our application is to better protect the ancient pagodas from which the temple gets its fame," Zhao said.

The government will only demolish buildings that affect the overall style of the temple, he added.

Most of the newly built buildings were constructed after the 1990s in a style that places them at odds with their surroundings, he said.

The official noted that some of the buildings, including a memorial hall for Xuanzang and the dinning hall, were never approved by the cultural heritage administration.The Chang'an district government has already planned to construct new buildings in nearby villages to guarantee the accommodation of Buddhists and their normal religious activities.

But the government is yet to reach agreement with the temple on the land distribution for resettlement.

"The temple supported our application but was capricious in the land distribution," a district government official said on condition of anonymity.

He claimed that an appeal for 10 mu (0.67 hectare) of land had risen over time to 80 mu, so "the cost of relocation is too high."

Applications for UNESCO World Heritage sites have been filed thick and fast in China in recent years, with a successful bid likely to bring in numerous tourists and considerable revenues for local governments.

In the Xingjiao Temple case, experts have called for stakeholders to hold talks and settle on a compromise.

"The religious relics are sacred in believers' eyes. The government should make public their application and relocation plans and ask the Buddhists, public and experts to deliberate on their validity," said Li Li'an, a professor with the Northwest University.

Li also called for the government to be on alert for overdevelopment and commercialization after the application.

Zhou Kuiying, an official with the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Heritage Administration, warned against demonizing the government's application efforts, and said that a balance must be struck.

"We should regard the application in the interest of the nation, instead of selfishly," said Zhou. "Cultural heritage protection should never be bundled with commercial development, either."