The Dalai Lama
WASHINGTON: US President George W. Bush will risk angering China by attending a ceremony next week to award a Congress medal to the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, at the bastion of American democracy.
Barely a month after China strongly protested German Chancellor Angela Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama, the White House said Wednesday that Bush and his wife will participate in the landmark event for the 72-year-old Buddhist spiritual leader at the Capitol building next Wednesday.
"The president and Mrs Laura Bush will attend the ceremony," national security council spokesman Gordon Johndroe told AFP.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will present the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor the legislature can bestow, to the Dalai Lama.
"He has used his position to promote wisdom, compassion, and non-violence as a solution -- not only in Tibet -- but to other world conflicts," said Pelosi, a sharp critic of China's human rights record.
"The United States must continue to be committed to meeting the challenge that Tibet makes to the conscience of the world," she said.
George W. Bush (L) and Nancy Pelosi
A bill to award the medal won the support of more than two thirds of members of both the Senate and House of Representatives last year before it was signed into law by Bush.
The medal has also been given to such diverse individuals as Sir Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa and former South African president Nelson Mandela.
This will be the first time that a sitting US president will appear with the Dalai Lama in a public event, a move that could anger China, diplomats said.
China reacted angrily when the US Congress announced the award last year.
The award "has sent very serious, wrong signals to the Tibetan independence forces, seriously interfered into China's internal affairs and damaged China-US relations," Beijing said then.
The ceremony in Washington comes just after Merkel's September 23 meeting with the Dalai Lama. Beijing warned Germany after the talks that bilateral ties had been damaged.
Aside from Merkel, the Dalai Lama also met Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer last month and was received by Australian Prime Minister John Howard in June. He is scheduled to meet Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper this month.
"We are seeing a trend in which world leaders are becoming more aware that it is in their interest to meet the Dalai Lama despite China's objections because he is after all one of the world's leaders," said Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for the International Campaign for Tibet.
"As he is increasingly received by world leaders, China is stepping up its anti-Dalai Lama campaign in Tibet," she said.
Following the ceremony, the Congress, in a rare move, has agreed to allow the Dalai Lama to address a large crowd of well wishers on the West Lawn of the Capitol.
Bush, known for his religious convictions, has been frank with China on human rights, particularly religious freedom, and strongly supports the idea of a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Beijing.
He had met the Dalai Lama several times at the White House residence rather than the offices, apparently to avoid the full wrath of China.
China has ruled Tibet since sending troops in to "liberate" the Himalayan region in 1950.
The Dalai Lama fled to India following a failed uprising in 1959 after Beijing crushed the revolt in Lhasa.
The Tibetan leader lives in the northern hill town of Dharamsala, which is also the seat of his government in exile.
Beijing considers the Dalai Lama a political exile bent on establishing an independent Tibet, an accusation the 1989 Nobel Peace price winner has repeatedly denied.
He instead says he only wants greater autonomy and respect for Tibetan culture and religion.