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Disputed Panchen Lama defends China on religion

Written by: Staff
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HANGZHOU, China, Apr 13 (Reuters) - Tibet's 11th Panchen Lama, anointed by China's atheist Communists but not by the Tibet's Dalai Lama, took centre stage at the World Buddhist Forum today, 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 seeking 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.

''Chinese society provides a favourable environment for Buddhist belief,'' the 16-year-old told the forum which winds up on Sunday.

Wearing a yellow and maroon robe, he delivered his terse speech in Tibetan which was interrupted twice by applause from more than 1,000 delegates from 34 countries.

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.

''In Europe, we are worried about his state and we try to ask for access to him,'' Sabine Thielow, president of German Buddhist Union, told Reuters on the sidelines of the forum, ''I would be happy if the two boys could meet and exchange their experiences.'' Many Tibetans dismiss China's choice as a sham.

Gyaltsen Norbu made his debut on the world stage yesterday, sitting alongside about 50 Buddhist leaders during an audience at a hotel with Jia Qinglin, ranked fourth in the Communist Party hierarchy. But the other delegates ignored him.

LAMAS ABSENT, NO PICTURES Today, one Tibetan Lama shook his head and declined to comment when asked about the Panchen's speech. Another Lama smiled and only said: ''It's hard to explain'' after a brief moment of silence.

Two other top lamas of Tibetan Buddhism were conspicuously absent from the forum.

The Dalai Lama, branded by Beijing as a ''splittist'', 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, number two in the top advisory body to parliament and the most senior Chinese leader 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,'' she said, days before a summit between Chinese President Hu Jintao and his deeply religious U.S. counterpart, George W Bush, in Washington.

''A peacefully developing China looks forward to a peacefully co-existing world.'' A photo exhibition is being held at the forum venue, but there were no pictures of either the Dalai Lama or from the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when monasteries were closed, statues smashed and religious texts burnt.

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.

But in the face of rising unrest, China has no qualms about crushing any challenge to its rule, banning the Falun Gong spiritual movement as an evil cult in 1999.

China is less fearful of home-grown Buddhism 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.

REUTERS SHB PM1522

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