The Dalai Lama, whose meetings with President Obama have repeatedly been swept under the rug, will appear in the same room as the president at the National Prayer Breakfast next Thursday, Feb. 5.
Obama has never appeared in public with the Dalai Lama, who represents China’s suppressed Tibetan Buddhist community to the world. Instead, their meetings at the White House have taken place in the Map Room rather than the Oval Office, and far from the gaze of reporters. Contrary to normal protocol for visiting leaders, the 79-year-old monk is ushered in and out of the building through a side door.
China’s government has repeatedly objected to any recognition of the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan people, calling him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and a “separatist” who wishes to violently destabilize the country, though he has repeatedly emphasized the importance of nonviolence.
Obama has been cautious throughout his tenure of offending the Chinese government’s sensibilities by speaking out on human rights. At a time when religious liberties are increasingly under threat not only in China, but around the world, his record on religious freedom abroad is also tenuous — the key position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom has been vacant for over half his presidency. (RELATED: Obama Meets Wife Of Jailed Pastor Saeed Abedini)
The current Dalai Lama, the 14th to hold the title since it was established in 1391, claims to be the reincarnation of his predecessors, and early in his life was head of the autonomous Tibetan government before fleeing to exile in India in 1959. China has used the reincarnation system to appoint its own successors to other lines of Tibetan lamas. In this light, the Dalai Lama has said that “concerned people should decide whether the Dalai Lama’s reincarnations should continue in the future.”
Next week’s National Prayer Breakfast will, in accordance with tradition, host religious and political leaders from across the United States and the world. The private Christian organization which organizes it, known as the Fellowship, issues its own invitations to the event. It traditionally includes several keynote speakers and an address by the president. Time Magazine first reported that the Dalai Lama would attend this year.
At last year’s breakfast, Obama dedicated parts of his speech to the topic of international religious freedom, saying that when he meets Chinese officials he stresses that “realizing China’s potential rests on upholding universal rights, including for Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists, and Uighur Muslims.”
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