AFP[Sunday, April 20, 2008 11:20] An ancient Japanese Buddhist temple, which cancelled its role in the protest-marred Olympic torch relay, has been vandalised with white spray paint, police said Sunday.

The Zenkoji Temple in Nagano, the host city of the 1998 Winter Olympics, on Friday withdrew from plans to be the start point for the Japanese leg of the relay on April 26 because of China’s crackdown in Tibet.

The global tour of the torch for August’s Beijing Olympics has been dogged by protests since it was lit in Greece last month.

Six white spray paint graffiti patterns were found on pillars and sliding doors at the main sanctuary of the 1,400-year-old temple early Sunday, a spokesman for the Nagano prefectural police said.

“We have yet to ascertain if the act was related to the torch relay. It could possibly be a malicious practical joke,” he told AFP by telephone. “We are investigating the case.”

The wooden sanctuary, designated as a national treasure by the government, is the main feature of the temple.

“We really deplore what has happened. We are angry at the damage done to the cultural asset,” Shinsho Wakaomi, the temple’s director of general affairs, told the public broadcaster NHK.

“We will step up our guard in the run-up to the torch relay.”

The temple rang bells for the opening ceremonies for the 1998 Winter Games.

The graffiti patterns, as large as 60 centimetres (24 inches) by 80 centimetres (31 inches), did not contain written messages, the police spokesman added.

Zenkoji, which was built in the seventh century and draws six million visitors every year, said it had received about 100 phone calls, mostly supportive, about the cancelled ceremony.

The global relay has turned into a public relations headache for Beijing as a crackdown on unrest in Tibet has provoked concern about China’s human rights record and triggered protests at many of the torch’s worldwide stops, most notably in London and Paris.