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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soldiers, Monks Clash in Buryatia

A valuable set of Tibetan drawings took off Wednesday for the United States after Interior Ministry troops violently dispersed Buddhist monks, who were trying to prevent their removal from Buryatia.

Forty pages from the Tibetan Medical Atlas, one of three surviving copies of a 17th-century book, will be exhibited in four U.S. cities during a year-long tour.

Protests against the tour continued Wednesday, with Buddhists picketing the government building in Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Buryat republic on the Mongolian border.

Starting Sunday afternoon, about 50 monks and their followers had kept vigil outside a former Russian Orthodox cathedral where the Buryat History Museum was storing the atlas.

At 11:30 p.m. Monday, about 100 troops arrived and began dragging the Buddhists away from the entrance. Thirty monks and khubaraks, or students of the faith, were beaten, said Lupsan Rengin, a monk who was among the protesters.

About 15 people were briefly detained, while two monks and a video operator were arrested, he said.

The videotape showed crowds of Interior Ministry troops in balaclava masks and bulletproof vests grabbing maroon-robed protesters, holding them down on the ground and hitting them with nightsticks.

"Two soldiers kept me down and one beat me," Rengin said.

Then a military truck with concealed license plates backed up to the entrance, and the soldiers quickly loaded on three large wooden boxes containing the drawings.

"The Buryatia Interior Ministry and the president feel that the use of force was justified," said Tatyana Chekovinskaya, spokeswoman for the Buryat president, Leonid Potapov.

In Moscow, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin ordered a special committee to investigate the use of force in Buryatia.

Officials in Buryatia and at the Russian Culture Ministry said the Buddhist protest was designed to discredit Potapov before the June 26 presidential elections in Buryatia. Two of his 18 rivals were in the crowd dispersed by troops.

The Tibetan Medical Atlas is considered the finest of three surviving copies made in the 19th century of the 17th century medical treatise. Soviet authorities seized it in 1936 at a time when Buddhists were persecuted. The atlas is a collection of 76 drawings, about half of which are included in the exhibition, to be shown in Atlanta, at the Smithsonian in Washington, Indiana University in Bloomington, and in Newark, New Jersey.

Pro Cultura, Inc., a New York-based organization, is organizing the U.S. tour, under a contract approved by the culture ministers of Buryatia and the Russian Federation.

The Buddhist Traditional Sangha learned of the planned tour only in March, Rengin said. Soon after, Buddhist leaders gathered in Ulan-Ude, considered the center of Buddhism in Russia, and appealed to President Boris Yeltsin to return the atlas to the religious community.

Since then, Russian Buddhists, who count their numbers at about 1 million, have gathered 30,000 signatures supporting their claim for the atlas.

"It is our sacred object, one of the few that were left after the persecution of the 1930s and 1940s," said Rengin, who was in Moscow on Wednesday on his way back to his home in St. Petersburg.

However, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader and the head of the Yellow Hat sect to which most Russian Buddhists belong, wrote a letter to the Buryat president supporting the exhibit. He said it would help raise awareness of Buryatia's history and culture.

"This medical atlas is a masterpiece of our Buddhist culture, and therefore it is with great pride that we should share our great cultural heritage with people from all nations," the letter said.

The Dalai Lama and actor Richard Gere, who converted to Buddhism, are expected to attend the opening in Atlanta on Friday.

"There is enormous interest in Buddhism in the United States right now," said Anna Souza, president of Pro Cultura, the tour organizer.

It is the first international tour of objects from Buryatia and the republic's administration was extra cautious, she said.

Pro Cultura spent $300,000 to restore the drawings and build special cases designed to preserve them for 200 years. At the request of the Buryat government, the company insured the paintings for $2 million, or $50,000 each.

The U.S. Information Agency has provided assurances that the Tibetan drawings will not be sold or claimed while on American soil.

The four museums will pay Buryatia a total of $20,000 for the exhibit.

Souza said that she had heard about the Buryat Buddhists' claim on the atlas, but said she was assured by Buryat and Russian officials that the claim had surfaced because of political infighting and that the monks had no legal right to the drawings.

The Buryat president offered to allow Buddhist monks to accompany the atlas on tour, his spokeswoman said, but they declined.Souza said she was alarmed by reports of the clash between the monks and interior troops in Buryatia.

"If what I hear is true, I am absolutely horrified. And I will need to sit down and figure out what I could have done to avoid it," she said.