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Opponents lament Afghanistan's order to destroy statues

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February 28, 2001 


KABUL-(AP) - The ruling Taliban are endangering Afghanistan's history by ordering the destruction of all statues in the country, including two towering 5th century images of Buddha, opponents said Tuesday.

"It is a great loss, a tragedy for the Afghan people and for the world," said Angelo Gabriele de Ceglie, Italy's ambassador to Pakistan and a representative of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage. He made the comments in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.

Afghanistan's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, on Monday ordered the destruction of all statues, including the two giant ancient Buddhas, saying they were offensive to Islam.

"Because God is one God and these statues are there to be worshipped, and that is wrong, they should be destroyed so that they are not worshipped now or in the future," Omar said in his edict.

The Taliban, who rule about 95 percent of Afghanistan, espouse a harsh brand of Islamic law. They have outlawed photography and television, believing that Islam forbids the making of images such as pictures or paintings of people.

The cultural preservation society, a largely Italian-funded organization, is worried the country's sense of heritage is suffering from 20 years of relentless war and called for the destruction order to be reversed.

Afghanistan's ancient Buddhas are located in Bamiyan, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) west of the Afghan capital of Kabul. One Buddha, measuring 175 feet(52 meters)high, is said to be the world's tallest statue in which Buddha is standing up rather than sitting.

The smaller is 120 feet(35 meters) tall. The two statues, which have been damaged in fighting in the area, were carved out of the Afghan mountainside in the 5th century.

"This is a historical treasure, a cultural heritage that belongs to the world," de Ceglie said.

The government of Sri Lanka, a majority Buddhist nation off the southern tip of India, expressed "grave concern" Tuesday about the order.

India also condemned the order calling it "an assault not only on Afghan tradition, but on the common heritage of humankind."

Other Afghans also expressed outrage at the Taliban order.

Hamid Karzai, a former deputy foreign minister in the ousted government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, said the statues are no longer a part of religion but are now a part of the country's heritage and history, like the tombs of Egypt's ancient Pharaohs.

"Afghanistan has been a staunch Muslim country for 1,200 years and the mullahs (Islamic clerics) have never tried to destroy these statues," he said. "Why wasn't the issue of these statues being against Islam raised in 1,200 years?"

But the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, on Tuesday said "we don't care why they weren't destroyed in the past, but we have a government now in Afghanistan that is religious and we want to stop all things that are against Islam."

As well as the two giant Buddhas, Afghanistan's national museum - which has been damaged by rockets - has hundreds of small statues of Buddha. They would also be destroyed under the order, Zaeef said.

However, he said officials would not enter the temples of minority religions, including Hindus or Sikhs, to carry out the order.

"We respect Hindus and Sikhs and they will not be stopped from performing their rituals," Zaeef said.

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