Tibet's 11th "Panchen Lama," anointed by China's atheist Communists but not by the Tibet's Dalai Lama, took center stage at the World Buddhist Forum yesterday, defending China's record on religion.
Chinese leaders opened the forum in the eastern city of Hangzhou with a pledge to respect religious freedom and sought to ease fears the rise of the world's most populous nation would be a threat to the world.
Gyaltsen Norbu, appointed in 1995 as the Himalayan region's second most important religious figure after Beijing rejected the Dalai Lama's nominee, shared the stage at an auditorium with eight Buddhist leaders from South Korea, Taiwan and Sri Lanka, taking the middle seat.
Norbu is believed to live in Beijing amid intense secrecy and is almost never seen in public.
The tall, thin teenager delivered a 10-minute speech in Tibetan, which was interrupted twice by applause from more than 1,000 delegates from 34 countries. The speech, according to an official translation, dwelt on Buddhism's responsibility to foster patriotism and national unity.
``Defending the nation and working for the people is a solemn commitment Buddhism has made to the nation and society,'' Norbu said.
He praised his predecessor, who was imprisoned for years after openly criticizing Beijing's politics in Tibet, for having made "outstanding contributions to the unity of the country and the solidarity of the people."
It was believed to be the first time Norbu had taken part in an international religious gathering, an apparent sign that Beijing is seeking greater acceptance of its choice of Panchen Lama.
The Dalai Lama's nominee is believed to have been under house arrest since 1995, when he was six years old. International human rights watchdogs call him the world's youngest political prisoner.
Many Tibetans dismiss China's choice as a sham.
Gyaltsen Norbu made his debut on the world stage on Wednesday, sitting alongside about 50 Buddhist leaders during an audience at a hotel with Jia Qinglin (
Two other top lamas of Tibetan Buddhism were conspicuously absent from the forum.
The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since 1959 when he fled his homeland after an abortive uprising. A 23-year-old backed by the Dalai Lama as the Karmapa Lama, ranked third, fled to India in 1999.
Liu Yandong (劉延東), number two in the top advisory body to parliament and the most senior Chinese at the forum, sought to play down fears China's rise would be a threat to the world.
"Internal harmony will definitely lead to external peace," he said, days before a summit between Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and US President George W. Bush in Washington.
"A peacefully developing China looks forward to a peacefully co-existing world," he said.
Xi Jinping (習近平), party chief of Zhejiang Province, who lobbied to host the forum, pledged to respect religious freedom.
"We will, as always, comprehensively carry out policies on freedom of religious worship and support religion to make due contributions to promote a harmonious society."
A photo exhibition is being held at the forum venue, but there were no pictures of either the Dalai Lama or from the chaotic 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution when monasteries were closed, statues smashed and religious texts burned.
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