Religious tensions can often be a contributing factor in disputes and conflicts around the world. Many of the deepest and most long-running conflicts have a religious component to them, such as the Israel-Palestine issue or tensions between India and Pakistan.
In the cases where religious divisions play a role in conflicts, they tend to be focused around one or several contested sites or locations. Frequently, these sites will have an additional significance beyond their religious importance, such as a disagreement over land or borders, or disputes over the site’s role in more recent history. In other instances, a place can have a symbolic meaning for a group of people that is offensive or controversial to another.
The controversial nature of the sites contained on this list almost never remain purely on the religious level. In many of the examples provided below, the religious differences over the site have been utilized to drive armed clashes and even wars that go far beyond the particular religious issues involved. The results are sometimes devastating, with large numbers of people losing their lives in conflicts or in terrorist attacks.
For anyone familiar with Jerusalem, it will come as no surprise that three of the sites on this list are located in or around that city. As the center of the holy lands for the three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), a vast number of disagreements and controversies exist over sites in Jerusalem. It would have probably been possible to find 10 sites alone in the city for this list. The following list contains 10 of the most controversial religious sites from around the world.
10 Park 51
The religious part of the plans for the Park 51 construction became so controversial that the project was abandoned before it was built. Park 51 refers to the planned replacement of an 1850s building close to the site of the World Trade Center. The building was damaged in the September 11 attacks and has been scheduled to be replaced ever since. The original plan intended to build a community center, and as part of that, a prayer area for Muslims. Commentators hostile to this proclaimed that a mosque was going to be built on ground zero and as a result, the proposal was set aside. Instead, a museum is now to be constructed there.
9 Yasukuni Shrine
Built in the mid to late 19th century, the shrine was designed as a sacred place to intern the souls of Japanese soldiers who fell during wars. Ultimately, it became the place where some of the country’s war dead from conflicts from the 1850s to 1945, were buried. The controversial part arises from the fact that over 1000 class A war criminals from World War II are buried there. Throughout their brutal occupation of large areas of Asia, which began with China in the 1930s, the Japanese army conducted massacres, forced women into prostitution and abused prisoners of war severely. Today, when a leading Japanese politician pays a visit to this shrine, it provokes angry responses in China and Korea because it is seen as a legitimization of Japan’s militarist past.
8 Potala Palace
Located in Lhasa, Tibet, the palace is the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama and a significant religious site for Buddhists. The current Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959 to escape persecution by the Chinese authorities. The palace has since been taken over by the state and converted into a museum. Due to the increase in tourists to the palace, many of those making their religious pilgrimages there are no longer able to get inside. The fate of the palace also mirrors that of the Tibetan population, whose religion and culture have been suppressed for decades under the Beijing government.
7 Buddhas Of Bamiyan
The two Buddha statues located northwest of the Afghan capital of Kabul were remarkable examples of 6th century art, having been carved out of sandstone and constructed using mud and wood. In March 2001, the extremist Taliban government in Afghanistan ordered the statues to be dynamited, causing their utter destruction. Earlier, they had declared them to be idols of an alien religion and that their destruction was necessary to maintain Islamic iconoclasm. The statues had been recognized as a world heritage site, and condemnation of the action was strong from a number of countries. Financial aid has been pledged to rebuild the structures.
6 The Church Of The Holy Sepulchre
The site has become a place of high controversy between different Christian denominations, not only for its historic significance for the religion, but because of the complex arrangements currently in place to ensure that each group with a desire to have a presence there can gain access to the church. The church is said to be the place of Jesus’ crucifixion, and is believed by orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, to be the place of his resurrection. Various orthodox tendencies, including the Greek, eastern and Ethiopian orthodox traditions, have a presence there, along with Catholics. An indication of the tense state of affairs came in 2002. When a Coptic monk moved his chair into the shade on a hot sunny day, this was taken as a mark of disrespect by Ethiopian Christians, provoking a brawl. Several years later, the fact that a door to the Franciscan Chapel was left open during an orthodox festival was cause for offence and provoked another fist fight.
5 The Western Wall
The wall is located at the foot of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and is considered by Jews to be the remnants of a wall of an ancient temple. It has become a place of prayer and reflection for Jews, with the belief that messages left at the wall are communicated directly with God. Access to the wall has increased tensions between Jewish and Muslim communities, due to the close proximity to the Al Aqsa mosque and the fact that Muslims also consider the area to be important. But even among the Jewish community itself, there are conflicts. Orthodox Jews insist on separate praying areas for men and women, a tradition which some women have rejected more recently and formed campaigns to bring an end to the practice.
4 Harmandir Sahib
Also referred to as the Golden Temple, the site is one of the most important in the Sikh religion. In the 1980s, activities around the temple led the Indian government to launch a raid on it, in an attempt to capture armed separatists calling for an independent Sikh state. The result was the deaths of hundreds of worshipers, and although the official total is around 400, some Sikh groups put the figure much higher. The disputes surrounding the event have not gone away, as shown by heavy clashes between Sikhs at last year’s thirtieth anniversary commemorative event, where many were injured when a fight broke out. Many Sikhs believe that the 1984 assault by the army defiled the temple.
3 Preah Vihear Temple
This temple has been at the heart of a border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand, provoking a series of fatal clashes over the years. Cambodia claims sovereignty over the temple and the region around it, a position that Thailand rejects. Cambodia was successful in 2008, in having the temple recognized as a world heritage site by UNESCO, but Thailand has continued to oppose this ruling. Initially established as a Hindu temple in the 9th century, the majority of the temple was constructed between the 11th and 12th centuries. Later, as the influence of Hinduism declined, it was used by Buddhists.
2 Ayodhya Faizabad District
Ayodhya has been a site of controversy between Hindus and Muslims for many years. Hindu religious groups claim that in the 16th century, a temple was torn down in order to build the Babri mosque on a site that they also consider to be the birthplace of Rama, an important figure in the Hindu religion. In 1992, the Babri mosque was destroyed in a mob riot. Since then, some Hindu groups have pushed for a new temple to be constructed on the site. The mosque’s destruction caused communal tensions to rise across the region and clashes broke out in other areas. No one was criminally charged with responsibility for the incident.
1 Temple Mount
Arguably the most contested site in the world, the mount in Jerusalem has played a central role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over recent decades. Jewish groups maintain that the place is the site of King Solomon’s temple, which is believed to have been first built around 1000 BCE. For the Palestinians, it is the location of the Al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam since its construction in the 7th century. Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed visited the mosque in his famous overnight journey. Conflicts over access to the mount were partly responsible for triggering the second Palestinian intifada, an uprising of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories that began in 2000 and lasted for five years.