The List: The World's Most Controversial Religious Sites

Politics and religion can be a deadly concoction. Nowhere is that more true than at the world’s holiest shrines, temples, mosques, and churches. From Japan to South Carolina, FP takes a look at some of the world’s most contentious religious sites—and the politicians who inflame their faithful followers.


Yasukuni Shrine
Tokyo, Japan

Why it matters: Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine built in Tokyo in 1869 to venerate the souls of soldiers who died in the Shogun wars. Today, it is dedicated to the nearly 2.5 million Japanese who perished in the countrys wars between 1853 and 1945. The names of the dead are inscribed in the shrines Book of Souls, and some 8 million people visit the shrine each year to pay respects to ancestors.

Whats the rub: Among the souls enshrined at Yasukuni are 1,068 convicted war criminals. The shrines private overseers say these people were unfairly tried. But 14 are Class-A war criminals, including the military commander who presided over the 1937 Nanjing Massacre in China and the prime minister who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. Until the 1980s, no Japanese prime minister visited the shrine officially. Doing so threatened relations with both China and South Korea, who see the shrine as a symbol of Japans militarism. Beginning in 2001, however, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made several highly publicized trips to Yasukuni.

Whats next: Its anyones guess. Koizumis successor, the hawkish Shinzo Abe, publicly backed his predecessors trips to Yakusuni and regularly made private visits prior to becoming PM. But Abe has not made an official visit as the countrys chief. He says that building bridges with China and South Korea are among his goals, which is likely to keep him away from the shrine for now. But in the long run, his hawkish Liberal Democratic Party may demand a visit.

China Photos/AFP/Getty Images

Potala Palace
Lhasa, Tibet, China

Why it matters: The stunning, iconic Potala Palace is the historical seat of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhisms spiritual and political leader. The current Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against occupation by atheist China and has remained an opposition leader in exile since. The palace, meanwhile, became a Chinese state museum after narrowly escaping the anti-religious fervor of the Cultural Revolution.

Whats the rub: Unchecked Chinese control. Tibet became a cause clbre in the 1990s, as Hollywood stars led by Richard Gere protested the Chinese governments attempts to make the historically autonomous province more Chinese. But as Geres star has faded, so too it seems has his cause. Tibet barely registers on the international media radar anymore, and few in the West noticed when in 2001 Hu Jintao celebrated the 50th anniversary of Tibets liberation in front of Potala Palace, once a locus of anti-Chinese protests.

Whats next: Disneyfication. As tourism has boomed, religious pilgrims have found their veneration times restricted. Struggling to deal with the hordes of domestic visitors unleashed by the building of a high-altitude railway to previously remote Lhasa, the Chinese government has announced plans to build a mini Potala Palace near the original, complete with a sound-and-light show. It should be ready just in time for the 2008 Olympics.


Faizabad district, Uttar Pradesh state, India

Why it matters: Ayodhya is believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Rama, one of the faiths most important deities. Some Hindus also believe the location was home to an ancient temple that was demolished and replaced with a Muslim mosque in the 16th century.

Whats the rub: That Muslim mosque, built in 1528 on the same site where Lord Rama is believed to have been born, was destroyed by Hindus in 1992. That sparked religious riots between Hindus and Indias minority Muslim population that claimed the lives of some 2,000 Indians. The site was again the source of controversy and violence in 2002, when Muslim mobs reportedly set fire to a train carrying Hindu activists returning from Ayodhya. Since 1989, hard-line Hindus have been campaigning for a grand temple to be rebuilt on the site. A makeshift temple was erected in recent years, but was attacked by militants in 2005. Muslims want the destroyed mosque rebuilt.

Whats next: Continued stalemate. Indias largest opposition political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which largely represents the countrys Hindu majority and was involved in the 1992 destruction of the Muslim mosque, says that the temple must stay and that Muslims must find a way to accept it. That appears unlikely.

Click here to see our archive of FP Lists.