TOKYO (AFP) — Monks at an ancient Japanese Buddhist temple on Friday pulled out of hosting a ceremony for the protest-marred Olympic torch relay because of China’s crackdown in Tibet.
Organisers of the Japanese leg of the global tour have been forced to change the starting point after Zenkoji Temple said it would no longer welcome the torch, which has been dogged by protests since it was lit in Greece last month.
“Tibetan religious leaders stood up but (China) is cracking down on them,” Shinsho Wakaomi, a senior official at the temple, told a press conference in the city of Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
The temple, which rang bells for the opening ceremonies for the 1998 Nagano Games as well as for the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, had “fondly accepted” an invitation last year to host the ceremony on April 26, another temple official told AFP.
“But the situation has changed,” the official said. “Monks here are very concerned” about what happened in Tibet.
Zenkoji, which was built in the seventh century and draws six million visitors every year, said it had received many phone calls urging it not to host the ceremony on April 28.
Local government official Kunihiko Shinohara said he was “shocked” by the temple’s move.
But he added: “We respect the decision by Zenkoji and will change the starting venue.”
Japan, which has said it opposes letting China send guards to protect the Olympic torch when it arrives, has already cancelled a public celebration linked to the relay due to security concerns.
Japan’s government steered clear of the latest controversy, saying it was a matter for the Nagano authorities and the International Olympic Committee.
“It is not a matter in which the government would intervene,” top government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura told reporters.
The torch, whose journey before the Beijing Games in August has turned into a public relations headache for China’s leaders, arrived in Thailand on Friday from India, where many protesters were arrested.
A crackdown on demonstrations in Tibet has put the spotlight on China’s heavily criticised record on human rights and triggered demonstrations at many of the torch’s stops, notably London and Paris.
The three corporate sponsors of the Japanese leg — the local arms of Coca-Cola, Lenovo and Samsung — said Friday they would not send advertising vehicles to accompany the relay although they denied any link to Tibet.
Coca-Cola had intended to send a sales promotion car with the red corporate logo but has now abandoned the plan, a company spokesman said.
“We were told that the motorcade will be very long due to security reasons, which will reduce the effectiveness of our promotion activity,” he said, adding that the decision was “nothing to do” with Tibet.
Lenovo said its decision not to mobilise a promotion vehicle was made in March “due to budgetary reasons.”
Tibetan exiles in India say more than 150 Tibetans have been killed in China’s crackdown on the protests against its rule of the Himalayan region. Beijing says Tibetan “rioters” have killed 20 people.
The temple’s decision to refuse the Olympic flame came during a visit to Japan by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who on Thursday rebuffed Japanese pressure on Tibet, reiterating that Beijing sees it as an internal matter.