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February 2017

U.N. Human Rights Experts Unite to Condemn China Over Expulsions of Tibetans

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Buddhist monks at Larung Gar last year. A half-dozen United Nations experts have condemned the expulsions of monks and nuns from two Tibetan religious enclaves, Larung Gar and Yachen Gar.

Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

A half-dozen United Nations experts who investigate human rights abuses have taken the rare step of banding together to condemn China for expulsions of monks and nuns from major religious enclaves in a Tibetan region.

In a sharply worded statement, the experts expressed alarm about “severe restrictions of religious freedom” in the area.

Most of the expulsions mentioned by the experts have taken place at Larung Gar, the world’s largest Buddhist institute and one of the most influential centers of learning in the Tibetan world. Officials have been demolishing some of the homes of the 20,000 monks and nuns living around the institute, in a high valley in Sichuan Province.

The statement also cited accusations of evictions at Yachen Gar, sometimes known as Yarchen Gar, an enclave largely of nuns that is also in Sichuan and has a population of about 10,000.

“While we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of these allegations, grave concern is expressed over the serious repression of the Buddhist Tibetans’ cultural and religious practices and learning in Larung Gar and Yachen Gar,” the statement said.

It was signed by six of the United Nations experts, or special rapporteurs, who come from various countries. They each specialize in a single aspect of human rights, including cultural rights, sustainable environment and peaceful assembly. It is unusual for so many of them to collaborate in this manner.

The statement was sent to the Chinese government in November, but was made public only in recent days, before the start of this year’s session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The session began Monday and is scheduled to end on March 24.

The United Nations experts have asked Beijing to address the reports of evictions and demolitions. The release of the statement before the session in Geneva puts more pressure on China to explain the actions taking place at the two Tibetan Buddhist institutions. China says matters related to Tibet are internal affairs, but Chinese officials in Beijing have privately expressed some concern over outside perceptions of the demolitions and evictions at Larung Gar and related Western news coverage.

Over the summer, Chinese officials began deporting monks and nuns living at Larung Gar who were not registered residents of Garze, the prefecture where the institution is. Since then, hundreds of clergy members have been forced out, and workers have demolished small homes clustered along the valley walls. One day last fall, I watched workers tearing and cutting apart wooden homes, sometimes using a chain saw.

Official reports have said the demolition is part of a project to improve safety in the area because people live in such tight quarters there. In 2014, a fire destroyed about 100 homes.

Residents said the government planned to bring the population down to 5,000 from 20,000 by next year. The government evicted many clergy members once before, in 2001, but people returned. The encampment was founded in 1980 near the town of Sertar by Jigme Phuntsok, a charismatic lama, and is now run by two abbots. Those abbots have not protested the demolitions or evictions.

The United Nations experts said in the statement that while they awaited China’s response, they “urge that all necessary interim measures be taken to halt the alleged violations and prevent their reoccurrence.”

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South Korea Can Keep Buddhist Statue Stolen From Japan, Court Says

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Sekko Tanaka, a Buddhist monk on the Japanese island of Tsushima, in 2013, holding a photograph of a Buddhist statue that was stolen the year before.

Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea — A court ruled Thursday that a South Korean temple can have a Buddhist statue that was stolen from a Japanese temple in 2012, on the grounds that it had been taken from Korea centuries earlier by Japanese pirates.

Japan called the ruling “regrettable” and urged the statue’s return. The dispute is being closely watched by both governments, whose relations are often roiled by historical disputes.

The 20-inch gilded bronze statue, of a bodhisattva known as Kanzeon in Japan and Gwaneum in South Korea, was taken from a Buddhist temple on Tsushima, a Japanese island halfway between the two countries, by South Koreans who also stole another statue from a Shinto shrine there. The thieves were caught while trying to sell the artifacts in South Korea, and the statue from the Shinto shrine was eventually returned to Japan.

But a South Korean temple, Buseoksa, which says the bodhisattva statue was made there in the 14th century, won a court injunction in 2013 preventing its return until it could be determined whether it had originally been brought to Tsushima legitimately.

The statue shows the bodhisattva, a being on the path to enlightenment, in the lotus position. It has been in the government’s custody since 2013, and on Thursday a district court in Daejeon, a city south of Seoul, ruled that it should be given to Buseoksa. The government, which was the defendant in the civil suit, did not say whether it would appeal.

Upbeat monks at Buseoksa, in the west coast city of Seosan, prepared for the statue’s homecoming. The temple’s chief monk, the Venerable Wonwoo, hailed the ruling as a milestone that should inspire South Koreans to try to bring home what he claimed were 70,000 ancient Korean artifacts that had been looted and brought to Japan. Buddhists and other South Koreans have rallied behind Buseoksa’s campaign.

The Japanese temple, Kannonji, was not a direct party to the lawsuit, but it argued at the trial that the statue had not been removed from Korea illicitly, noting that there had been legitimate trade in goods, including Buddhist statues, between Korea and Tsushima in ancient times. The statue has been designated an important cultural asset in Japan.

After an investigation, South Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration said in 2014 that the statue had probably been taken to Japan by plunderers, though it could not reach a definitive conclusion.

Scholars supporting Buseoksa’s cause cited a document found inside the statue’s belly in 1951, which they said showed that the statue was manufactured in Seosan in the 14th century. They said it did not record a transfer of ownership to the Japanese temple, although such a document normally would.

They also presented the court with historical documents showing that parts of Korea’s west coast near Seosan had been visited by pirates from Japan during the 14th century. And they said the statue had burn damage, which they said could be a sign it had been plundered by pirates.

“There is enough reason to think that the statue belongs to Buseoksa,” the presiding judge, Moon Bo-gyeong, ruled Thursday.

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called the ruling “very regrettable.” He urged South Korea to take “appropriate” action to ensure the statue’s swift return to Japan.

“The Japanese government has appealed to the Korean government through various diplomatic channels to request the return of this statue to Japan as soon as possible,” he said at a news conference.

A spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry, Cho June-hyuck, said the ministry would try to resolve the matter with Japan “based on mutual trust.”

Correction: January 28, 2017

An earlier version of this article, along with the headline and a picture caption, misidentified the subject of the statue. It represents a bodhisattva known as Kanzeon in Japan and Gwaneum in South Korea, not Buddha.

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