China anointed Panchen Lama makes world stage debut

By Benjamin Kang Lim

HANGZHOU, China – China’s atheist Communist rulers used the opportunity of the World Buddhist Forum to introduce the 11th Panchen Lama to the world stage on Wednesday, but fellow delegates shunned him.

Beijing anointed Gyaltsen Norb

u as Tibet’s second-most important religious figure in 1995, rejecting spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama’s nominee, who has disappeared and is believed to be under house arrest. However, many Tibetans and Westerners dismiss China’s choice as a sham.

Gyaltsen Norbu sat alongside Buddhist leaders attending the World Buddhist Forum during an audience with Jia Qinglin, ranked fourth in the Communist Party hierarchy, at a hotel in the scenic city of Hangzhou in China’s east coast.

The visiting dignitaries had filed into a room and were introduced to Jia and other Communist leaders, but no one walked over to shake hands with Gyaltsen Norbu who sat quietly and appeared uneasy.

Fellow Buddhists made no attempt to publicly greet the Panchen Lama during the few minutes when reporters were allowed in the room with them.

The World Buddhist Forum — China’s first international religious meeting since the Communists swept to power in 1949 — will begin in Hangzhou on Thursday and wind up in nearby Zhoushan on Sunday.

Organisers timed the forum to coincide with the Christian festival of Easter, sources said, apparently to send a message of China’s greater religious tolerance to church-going U.S. President George W. Bush ahead of his summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao later this month.

Two of the top lamas of Tibetan Buddhism will not attend the forum. The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since 1959 when he fled his Himalayan homeland after an abortive uprising. The Karmapa Lama, the third-ranking monk, arrived in India from Tibet in 1999.

Qi Xiaofei, vice-president of the China Association for Religious and Cultural Exchanges, said the Dalai Lama was not a purely religious figure and accused him of “splitting the motherland and sabotaging ethnic unity”.

The Dalai Lama would be an “unharmonious voice” if he attended the forum, Qi told a news conference, but added the government’s desire for harmony did not mean it was unwilling to have exchanges with those who hold different views.

“We want dialogue, not confrontation,” he added.

UNPRECEDENTED GATHERING

Some 1,000 monks and Buddhist experts from 30 countries will attend the forum.

“This is an unprecedented grand gathering in Chinese Buddhism’s 2,000-year history,” Ye Xiaowen, director of the State Bureau of Religious Affairs, wrote on the forum Web site.

There also has been talk of China forging ties with the Vatican and a possible warming towards Tibet’s god-king, the Dalai Lama. A Tibetan nun jailed for 15 years was allowed to seek medical treatment in the United States last month.

Such moves, however symbolic, may provide Hu with a list of concessions on religion with which to temper any U.S. criticism during his visit, analysts said. But critics dismissed the moves as a public relations exercise.

China is generally less fearful of Buddhism, with its home-grown roots, than other religions, even though many Tibetan monks and nuns have been jailed for their loyalty to the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing accuses of pushing for independence.

Religious freedom is enshrined in China’s constitution, though. China has about 100 million Buddhists, some 20,000 temples and around 200,000 monks and nuns.

But during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, monasteries were closed, statues smashed, religious texts burned, and monks and nuns forced to return to secular life.

China has since sought to control but not stifle religion in a society where an ideological vacuum has spawned corruption and eroded ethics in the post-Mao era. — Reuter