U.S. President Barack Obama praised his “good friend” the Dalai Lama at a large religious freedom gathering in Washington on Thursday in a public embrace of the Tibetan spiritual leader reviled by China.
Beijing had made clear its displeasure at the notion of an Obama meeting with the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader in advance of the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual Washington event that draws 3,000 people from around the world.
“I want to offer a special welcome to a good friend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” said Obama, calling the 79-year-old monk “a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion, who inspires us to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings.”
It was the fourth meeting between the two men during Obama’s presidency, but the first one that was not held behind closed doors to avoid angering Beijing’s communist government, which regularly vilifies the Dalai Lama as a separatist fighting for Tibetan independence.
The U.S. president—like the Dalai Lama, a Nobel laureate—did not sit with the Tibetan religious leader. But senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett sat at the table with the Dalai Lama in what was seen as a sign of White House support for his attendance.
Matteo Mecacci, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, said the embrace of the Dalai Lama in Washington “is indicative of his significance as a moral and religious leader to American Government and the American people, as well as religious people worldwide.”
“The words of appreciation publicly expressed for the first time by President Obama confirm the support of the American government to his peaceful advocacy,” Mecacci said in a statement.
The Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his advocacy for Tibet around the world. He retired from his role as political head of the Tibetans in March 2011, and enjoys wide celebrity for his spiritual teachings and writings.
The Dalai Lama, however, has not been able to visit Tibet since he fled into exile after a 1959 uprising against an invasion of communist troops early in that decade.
China frequently blames him for stoking resistance to its heavy-handed rule in Tibet, including the demonstrations that have swept the region beginning in 2008, that have seen 136 Tibetans setting themselves ablaze in protests.
“China’s bullying tactics against the Nobel Prize Laureate and global icon of peace are not a sign of strength of a rising world power, but an indicator of insecurity, exposing only the lack of moral authority of the Communist Party state,” said Mecacci.
In the Tibetan capital Lhasa Thursday, the Peoples’ Intermediate Court sentenced driver Kalsang Tsering to two years and six months in jail on charges that he provided information outside Tibet, attempted to escape from the region and had a photo of the Dalai Lama on his mobile phone, a local resident told RFA’s Tibetan Service.
In public remarks in Washington on the eve of Thursday’s prayer breakfast, the Dalai Lama focused on familiar themes of religious freedom and mutual respect among faiths, with a warning about global warming.
“Despite the philosophical differences there may be between them, the aim of all our religious traditions is to create better, happier human beings,” he told a luncheon in the U.S. capital on Wednesday.
“This is why there should be mutual respect and admiration between them.”
Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service and Paul Eckert. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Paul Eckert.