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China pledges to repair quake-damaged monasteries

May 3, 2010

BEIJING — The Chinese government promised to focus on repairing monasteries damaged in an earthquake in an ethnically Tibetan region of the country, a state news agency said Saturday, days after monks assisting in relief work were told to leave the disaster area.

China's communist leadership is wary of Buddhist monks because of their loyalty to their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing says has pushed for independence for Tibet. The government decision to send the crimson-robed monks out of the quake zone raised concerns that the move was politically motivated.

At the same time, the government appears to be using its full-scale relief operation to show it cares about China's Tibetan communities, some of which staged anti-government protests in 2008.

The death toll from the April 14 earthquake centered in Yushu county of western China's Qinghai province rose to 2,192, Xinhua News Agency reported. As of Friday night, 78 people were still missing.

Authorities were planning to repair the 87 monasteries damaged by the quake, Xinhua said. Living quarters for more than 8,000 monks now in tents should be fixed by the end of the year, Leshi, chief of the ethnic and religious affairs committee in Yushu, was cited as saying.

"Such repairs will be one of the priorities in our quake relief and rebuilding efforts this year," Leshi, who like many Tibetans goes by one name, was quoted as saying. "The residents rely on Tibetan Buddhism for spiritual support and for many, the monastery is often viewed as more important than their own homes."

The vast majority of Yushu's residents are Tibetan and most are deeply devout Buddhists. The area has 238 monasteries with more than 23,000 monks, Xinhua said.

Monks were among the first on the scene after the earthquake, helping to dig survivors and bodies from the rubble and handing out aid to survivors. Several days ago, monks told the AP they had been told to leave the area.

Chinese authorities said specialized personnel were needed for reconstruction work and rejected accusations that they had been told to leave for political reasons.

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