Fire hits sacred Tibet monastery

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Tibetans pray outside Jokhang monastery ahead of Tibetan New Year’s Day in Lhasa in February, 2014. Reuters

BEIJING (AFP) – A fire broke out on Saturday at one of the most sacred sites for Tibetan Buddhism, Lhasa’s revered Jokhang temple, state media said, but no casualties were reported and the extent of the damage remained unclear.

The official Xinhua news agency said the fire began at 6.40pm but was soon put out at the Unesco World Heritage Site, which has more than 1,300 years of history and lies at the heart of old Lhasa.

“The fire was quickly extinguished, there were no casualties and order is normal in the area,” said the state-run Tibet Daily, adding that Tibet’s top Communist party official Wu Yingjie had rushed to the scene.

State media outlets showed pictures of flames leaping into the sky and water being sprayed on them by the fire services.

Images posted on social media of the blaze showed the eaved roof of a section of the building lit with roaring yellow flames and emitting a haze of smoke.

But on Twitter, which is blocked in China, Tibetans abroad noted that photos and posts about the fire were quickly being censored.

Robert Barnett, a London-based Tibetologist, tweeted that sources in Lhasa “claim police have threatened anyone distributing pictures or unofficial news about the fire.”

The blaze comes as Tibetans across the country are celebrating Losar, the traditional Tibetan New

Year that began Friday, the same day as the Chinese lunar new year.

The temple, an important pilgrimage site, had been closed to the public on Saturday, Xinhua reported, citing a schedule from local authorities from before the holiday began.

Jokhang houses one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most venerated icons – the Jowo Shakyamuni, a statue believed to be one of just three crafted during the Buddha’s actual lifetime, depicting him at age 12.

It is also home to numerous other priceless cultural artifacts, including more than 3,000 images of Buddhas, deities and historical figures as well as treasures and manuscripts, according to Unesco.

China has ruled Tibet since the 1950s, and has been accused of trying to eradicate its Buddhist-based culture through political and religious repression.

Beijing insists that Tibetans enjoy extensive freedoms and argues that it has brought economic growth to the region.

Its officially atheist ruling Communist party views the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama as a dangerous “separatist” campaigning for independence. He says he seeks only greater autonomy.

Foreign journalists are banned from visiting Tibet except on state-sponsored tours, as Beijing seeks to strictly control the narrative about the region, ranked the second least free territory in the world after Syria by US think tank Freedom House.

In 2008, demonstrations by Tibetan monks in Lhasa degenerated into deadly violence targeting Han and the Hui, China’s Muslim minority.

Later that year, dozens of monks burst into Jokhang temple to interrupt a state-run foreign media press tour intended to showcase the region’s harmony and stability in wake of the protests, accusing the government of lying.

More than 150 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against Beijing’s presence in Tibet since 2009, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, headquartered in Washington.

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