Japanese temple refuses to host Olympic torch relay

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The Independent Online

A major Japanese Buddhist temple withdrew yesterday from a plan to host the Beijing Olympics torch relay, citing safety concerns and sympathy among its monks and worshippers for Tibetan protesters facing a Chinese crackdown.

Zenkoji Temple declined to serve as the starting point for the April 26 relay, said Kunihiko Shinohara, secretary-general of the Nagano city organizing committee for the event. The relay has drawn protests around the world against China's handling of Tibetan demonstrators.

"Zenkoji is a Buddhist temple. Naturally, we are concerned about Tibet," Zenkoji official Shinsho Wakaomi told a televised news conference after meeting the city officials.

"The principle of the Olympic charter is to overcome the differences of race, religion, gender and ideology, but the current situation has raised a question about it."

He said the monks were concerned about the way fellow Buddhists were treated in Tibet, as well as the safety of the temple and its worshippers in case the relay sparks the angry demonstrations it has brought to Europe and the United States.

City officials said they respect the temple's decision, although that meant the starting point has to change.

"We do understand the importance of human rights issues," said Nagano Mayor Shoichi Washizawa. "But once we had made a commitment to host the torch relay, we must accomplish our duty squarely."

The government in Tokyo said it planned to provide adequate security for the relay.

"The relay has caused various problems, even though it's an event that everyone should enjoy," Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said. "I would like all participants to make efforts to avoid any troubles."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura called for "thorough security" to prevent disruptions.

The torch relay was to start from the famous temple, taking runners through the city for 11.5 miles.

Nagano, the host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, has already canceled a post-relay event because of security concerns.

Since its start March 24 in Greece, the torch relay has been a magnet for critics of China's policies in Tibet. Protesters disrupted stops in London, Paris and San Francisco, helping make the games among the most contentious in years.

The Olympic flame, which arrived in Thailand on Friday under tight security, is to arrive in Japan from Australia and then travel to Seoul, South Korea.