Buddhist monk starts fund to rebuild Afghan statues

HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Buddhist museum in Taiwan donated HK$1 million (US$128,200) on Thursday to kickstart a campaign to help rebuild two giant Buddhist statues destroyed last year by Taliban extremists in Afghanistan.

"We want to rebuild them and urge other religious groups to join us (to pay for it)," said Venerable Dharma Master Hsin Tao of Taiwan's Museum of World Religions, which he founded.

Speaking to Reuters in Hong Kong, where he is currently visiting to publicise his campaign, the monk also urged religious groups the world over to help protect holy artefacts.

"If all religious groups can come together, everyone will be able to come to a common understanding to protect all religious relics in the future," said the monk, 55.

The Taliban destroyed many artworks in Afghanistan, including the world-famous Buddha statues in Bamiyan, as they saw them as abominations to the fiercely fundamentalist version of Islam they imposed in Afghanistan from 1996 to their fall last November.

Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai said earlier this year the country hoped to rebuild the statues.

"Experts say the reconstruction will cost US$25 million and take four years. We want to start this so that more people will be aware of this issue and its importance," said the soft-spoken monk, draped in maroon and orange robes.

"After I heard they were destroyed, something so old and so precious, I though what if other religious relics should suffer the same fate?" he said.

Born Yang Chin-sheng in 1948 in Myanmar, he lost both his parents when he was just four.

The young orphan then roamed the country with his uncle scavenging for odd jobs before becoming entangled in the chaos of China's revolution, as communist leader Mao Zedong consolidated his victory and pushed into Myanmar the remnants of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists.

Then only nine years old, he found himself taking up arms to fight communist guerrillas before retreating with the Nationalists to Taiwan in 1961. It was in Taiwan that he found his true calling and began his monastic life at 25.

"I saw a lot of death, war, pain, suffering, separation, all of which were very destructive... when so much is beyond one's control, we have to be more rigorous and I have to work for peace," said the monk, who spent 10 years meditating in a graveyard in Taiwan and another two in a cave.

He will head for Kabul at the end of the month where he will participate in a conference organised by UNESCO on how best to reconstruct the two statues.