WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) President George W Bush gave the Dalai Lama one of the highest US honors today and called on China to open talks with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader whom Beijing reviles as a separatist.
The Dalai Lama, accepting the Congressional Gold Medal from Bush and leaders of Congress, told a packed audience in the US Capitol that he had ''no hidden agenda'' in seeking greater autonomy but not independence for his Himalayan homeland.
''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,'' Bush said in the first public appearance by a US president with the Dalai Lama.
China has angrily denounced the award to the Dalai Lama as a ''farce'' that would hurt relations between Beijing and Washington. Chinese officials regularly vilify the Nobel Peace Prize laureate as a separatist in religious cloak.
But in an acceptance speech that mixed humorous banter with calls for tolerance and social justice, the Dalai Lama said Beijing's depiction of his motives was ''unfounded and untrue'' and asked US supporters to convince China he was sincere.
''On the future of Tibet, let me take this opportunity to restate categorically that I am not seeking independence. I am seeking a meaningful autonomy for the Tibetan people within the People's Republic of China,'' he said.
''Furthermore, I have no intention of using any agreement on autonomy as a stepping stone for Tibet's independence,'' he told an audience of more than 1,200 people, including robed Tibetan monks, Hollywood actor Richard Gere and US lawmakers.
Tibet has been ruled by China since communist troops invaded in 1950, and the government deals harshly with Tibetans who press for greater political and religious freedom.
The Dalai Lama, 72, has lived in exile in India since fleeing his predominantly Buddhist homeland in 1959 after a failed uprising against communist rule.
CHINESE ANGER In Beijing, atheist China's top religious affairs official condemned the medal award as a ''farce'' and called on the Dalai Lama to abandon dreams of independence for Tibet.
''The protagonist of this farce is the Dalai Lama,'' Ye Xiaowen, director-general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, told reporters today.
''He said he wants a high degree of autonomy and a Greater Tibet, but in reality it's independence in disguise,'' said Ye, referring to parts of western Chinese provinces populated by Tibetans and Tibet proper.
Yesterday the Dalai Lama emerged from his White House meeting with Bush and shrugged off the Chinese criticism, telling reporters: ''That always happens.'' In his speech in the ornate rotunda of US Capitol, the Dalai Lama urged China's leaders to ''recognize the grave problems in Tibet, the genuine grievances and the deep resentments of the Tibetan people inside Tibet and to have the courage and the wisdom to address these problems.'' The fast-growing Chinese population in Tibet strained a fragile environment and posed ''a real danger that the Tibetans will be reduced to an insignificant minority in their own homeland,'' he said.
Beijing's rhetoric against the Dalai Lama has been increasing, even though the Chinese government has engaged in six rounds of talks with his envoys, most recently in July.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest award Congress bestows on a civilian In protest at the medal for the Dalai Lama, China pulled out of a meeting this month at which world powers were to discuss the Iranian nuclear situation. It has also canceled an annual human rights dialogue with Germany to show its displeasure over German Chancellor Angela Merkel's September meeting with Tibet's religious leader.
China analysts in Washington said they expected more such retaliatory moves. But some observers say Beijing sometimes uses such spats as a pretext to skip meetings it doesn't want to attend anyway, such as human rights talks.
The Dalai Lama was the 146th recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, joining a list that includes first US President George Washington, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and Holocaust author Elie Wiesel. Wiesel told the ceremony that recognizing the Dalai Lama represented ''giving power to truth.'' REUTERS CS BST0214