Asian officials and Buddhist groups expressed dismay Wednesday at an order to destroy two 5th century statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, but most refrained from criticizing the country's Islamic rulers, saying that would violate Buddha's teachings.

Neighboring Iran scolded Afghanistan's Taliban rulers for the move, saying it would damage Kabul's relations with other governments, Iran's IRNA news agency said. It ridiculed the Taliban, saying the people who ordered the statues' destruction "strangely call themselves clerics."

Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, all predominantly Buddhist nations, have not officially criticized the Taliban order to destroy all statues in Afghanistan, including two giant stone monoliths of Buddha. The Taliban say statues are offensive to Islam.

But responding to a request for comment from The Associated Press, officials and clergy in Thailand and Cambodia said that destroying the statues would obliterate world heritage and the craftsmanship of the Taliban's own people.

In South Korea and Japan, the main Buddhist associations described the Afghan decision as anti-cultural and an affront to humanity.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Pradap Pibulsonggram said Afghanistan would realize the loss when it tries to develop its tourism industry once peace and order are restored in the country.

But the statement stopped short of condemning the Taliban, instead saying: "All religions teach their followers to do good and lead life morally and peacefully."

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia's deputy minister of religion, Chhorn Iem, also refrained from criticizing the Taliban. "True Buddhists will not attack other religions that attack Buddhism, but instead will use nonviolent means to find peaceful solutions because we teach nonviolence," he said.

A top monk in Thailand cited the Buddhist philosophy of turning the other cheek.

"As Buddhists, we are not allowed to criticize anyone, but good religious people should not destroy world heritage," said Phra Wipatsri Dhamaramo, the secretary to Thailand's chief monk.

A government spokesman in Myanmar, also known as Burma, said he had no comment. The government of Laos also did not immediately react.

The Taliban, who rule most of Afghanistan, have outlawed photography and television, believing that Islam forbids images such as pictures or paintings of people.

The two Buddhas, located in Bamiyan, 90 miles west of the Afghan capital of Kabul, are carved out of the mountainside. Both have already been damaged in fighting in the area.

The Taliban order to destroy them has provoked anger in other countries, including India and Sri Lanka, and even among some Afghans. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Italy-funded Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage have urged that they be spared.

The Paris-based UNESCO's director general, Koichiro Matsuura, on Wednesday described the decision as "a real cultural disaster."

"The perpetrators of such an irreparable act would bear a heavy responsibility before the Afghan people and history," Matsuura said in a statement.

Also Wednesday, the Korean Buddhist Order Association said it would protest to Afghanistan through diplomatic channels. "It is an anti-cultural and anti-humanitarian decision," said the association's secretary-general, Bup Hyun.

The Japan Buddhist Federation, which most Buddhist groups in the country belong to, also said it is not right for a religion to destroy "cultural treasures."

"It is an affront to 2,000 years of religious history for human hands to destroy such objects," said the group's secretary-general, Kigyo Nishimura.