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China may let Dalai Lama visit, eyes Vatican ties

Written by: Staff
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BEIJING/HONG KONG, Apr 3 (Reuters) China may approve a visit by the Dalai Lama, as long as he abandons dreams of independence for Tibet, and establish ties with the Vatican if it breaks ties with Taiwan, the top official on religious affairs today said.

The remarks by Ye Xiaowen, director of the cabinet's State Bureau of Religious Affairs, come just weeks before a summit in Washington between Chinese President Hu Jintao and his US counterpart, George W Bush, a devout Christian who prodded China to allow greater religious freedom when he visited last November.

The Dalai Lama said last month he wanted to go to China to visit Buddhist landmarks and witness the economic progress the Asian powerhouse has made in recent years.

Ye appeared welcoming.

''As long as the Dalai Lama makes clear that he has completely abandoned Tibetan 'independence', it is not impossible for us to consider his visit,'' Ye told the China Daily, the government's English-language mouthpiece. ''We can discuss it.'' The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since 1959 when he fled after a failed uprising against Communist rule nine years after the takeover of his Himalayan homeland.

One observer said a visit by the Dalai Lama to a Buddhist landmark such as Wutai mountain in Shanxi province posed a lower political risk than a return to his homeland or a trip to the Chinese capital, Beijing.

The Tibetan leader has reiterated his ''Middle Way'' position that seeks greater autonomy for Tibet but not independence.

FLEXIBILITY However, Ye dismissed the Dalai Lama's overtures saying that he ''has failed to deliver a clear message on his stance''.

China is suspicious of the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who is revered by and rubs shoulders with foreign leaders. Talks between the Dalai Lama's envoys and China resumed in 2002, but have made little substantial progress.

In a sign of movement towards greater religious tolerance, Zhejiang province in China's east coast will host the World Buddhist Forum in April -- the first international religious meeting since the atheist Communists swept to power in 1949.

On forging diplomatic relations with the Vatican, Ye said the Holy See must meet two conditions -- break off ties with self-ruled democratic Taiwan which Beijing claims as its own and refrain from meddling in China's internal affairs.

''We can establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican very soon if the two principles are accepted,'' Ye said. ''But it is very hard for us to do so if the two principles are violated.'' He gave no timetable. But Cardinal Joseph Zen said in Hong Kong on Monday the Vatican could switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China as early as the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

''I think it's a very reasonable target. The process may be long and it may be short. It depends on how they (China's leaders) open their way of seeing things,'' Zen told Reuters.

The Vatican estimates about 8 million Chinese Catholics worship in underground churches loyal to the Pope, compared with 5 million belonging to the state-controlled Catholic association.

China had more than 100 million Buddhists as of the early 1990s, according to the latest available official figures. The figure is believed to have grown dramatically as the Communists are generally less fearful of Buddhism than other religions.

REUTERS SY SP1337

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