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By Daniel Burke
2007 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — Demonstrating an unprecedented show of support for Tibet, the U.S. on Wednesday (Oct. 17) awarded the Dalai Lama the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, despite strong objections from China.
The nation’s most powerful political leaders, including President Bush and a bipartisan congressional delegation, attended the Capitol Rotunda ceremony, marking the first time a sitting U.S. president has met in public with the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism.
Beijing has lambasted the U.S. for the award, accusing its leaders of meddling in China’s internal affairs. Tibet and China have been locked in a dispute since the Communist People’s Liberation Army annexed the Dalai Lama’s Himalayan homeland in 1951.
“Americans cannot look to the plight of the religiously oppressed and close our eyes or turn away,” Bush said. “And that is why I will continue to urge the leaders of China to welcome the Dalai Lama to China. They will find this good man to be a man of peace and reconciliation.”
At Wednesday’s richly symbolic ceremony, ochre-robed Buddhist monks mingled with diplomats, movie stars and lawmakers to see Congress place the Dalai Lama in the company of George Washington and Mother Teresa as the 146th Gold Medal awardee.
The Dalai Lama thanked U.S. leaders on behalf of the world’s 6 million Tibetans for their “strong support.”
He also denied that he has a hidden agenda or will agitate for complete freedom from China. “I’m not seeking independence,” he said.
“I’m seeking meaningful autonomy for the Tibetan people within China.”
The Tibetan Buddhist leader has become an international spiritual figure, particularly since winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He draws huge crowds for his lectures and sells millions of books.
But Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., one of the sponsors of Congressional Gold Medal legislation, recalled the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Congress 20 years ago. It was in small committee room in the Capitol.
“What accounts for the rise of this humble Buddhist monk from near obscurity? Moral authority,” Lantos said. “At a moment in world history when nothing is in as short supply as moral authority, this Buddhist monk has an inexhaustible supply. That accounts for the love people have for him across the globe.”
The Dalai Lama met privately with the president and Laura Bush, whom he has described as friends, at the White House on Tuesday. The spiritual leader said they talked about Tibet and Myanmar, where Buddhist monks are battling a repressive military regime.
In exile since 1959, when protests against China’s annexation of Tibet were viciously suppressed, the Dalai Lama is considered a political agitator by China.
U.S. leaders played down the political implications of the medal award earlier this week. “We in no way want to stir the pot and make China feel we are poking a stick in their eye,” Dana Perino, White House press secretary, told reporters.
Still, many — both Republicans and Democrats — used Wednesday’s ceremony to repeatedly urge China to meet with the Dalai Lama to peacefully settle their differences. The audience roundly applauded each call for dialogue and camera shutters flickered to capture every image of Bush and the Buddhist leader in conversation.
Chinese officials, convening in Beijing for a twice-a-decade meeting of the Communist Party, have said they are “furious” about the ceremony.
They had demanded that the U.S. cancel the award, calling it a “farce” and terming the Dalai Lama a “splittest” who “doesn’t even love his motherland.”
Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, the Dalai Lama’s envoy to China, said “some leftists or party functionaries may not be very happy” about the medal.
Chinese diplomats in Washington lobbied lawmakers behind the scenes to stop the award, he said.
But “you must understand, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is becoming one of the most popular speakers even in China,” Gyari said. “Videos of his talks sell out, his books are quite lucrative sellers.”
Washington’s celebration of the Tibetan lama “sends a very powerful message that his is not the separatist as the Chinese media sometimes labels him. He is someone who is very sincere and looking for solutions.”
Those solutions, elusive so far, may get a push from the Congressional Gold Medal, Gyari said.
“I’m hoping that we have a great opportunity for … substantive discussions,” he said. The Chinese “are great hosts, but I don’t want to keep just making visits.”
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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