BEIJING, August 16 - The Beijing-backed 11th Panchen Lama, Tibet's second highest spiritual figure whose credibility is questioned by many devoted Tibetan Buddhists, has vowed to maintain national and ethnic unity with China, state media reported Monday.
"I will keep on working hard to learn religious, scientific and cultural knowledge, and to do my part to maintain the national and ethnic unity and Tibet's prosperity," Xinhua quoted the 14 year-old as saying in Lhasa on only his third visit to the Himalayan capital.
The 11th Panchen Lama, Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu, was chosen by the atheist Chinese communist regime as the reincarnated child of the 10th Panchen Lama to become Tibet's Buddhist spiritual leader in 1995 when he was just five.
China's central authorities ignored the choice of the exiled Dalai Lama.
Once known as Gyaincain Norbu, Panchen Lama is widely seen as a puppet of Beijing, while the Dalai Lama's choice, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, disappeared from public view in 1995 and is believed to have been under a form of house arrest ever since.
Panchen Lama worshipped the Sakyamuni Statue in 7th century Jokhang Temple -- the spiritual centre of Tibet -- in Lhasa Sunday, before he chanted and touched the heads of the monks there in blessing.
Dressed in a ceremonial robe, the teenager presented a hada -- a long piece of silk used for worship -- to the statue, state television footage showed.
The gilded Sakyamuni statue was believed to have been brought to Tibet by a Tang Dynasty (618-907) Chinese princess who married Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the year 641 -- a move meant to forge political and military alliances with Tibet.
Raidi, the vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, or China's top legislature, visited the teenager on Sunday, Xinhua said.
"With the central government's immediate care and the nurturing under senior Buddhist monks, the 11th Panchen Lama has improved a lot in political awareness and Buddhist attainment," Raidi, who only uses one name, was quoted as saying.
His visit to the spiritual centre of Tibetan Buddhism has "broadened his horizons and deepened his understanding of and attachment to the motherland," Raidi said.
The Dalai Lama has traditionally played a central role in the selection and education of the reincarnated Panchen Lama in a religious cycle that has gone on for centuries.
But since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet following an aborted coup in 1959, Beijing has viewed him as a separatist aimed at splitting Tibet from China and has refused to acknowledge his role as Tibet's most revered spiritual figure.
The Beijing-backed Panchen Lama has rarely appeared in public and has largely received his Buddhist education in Beijing, where he has also undergone political education by the government.
Many devoted Tibetan Buddhists question the identity of the Beijing-backed Panchen Lama, but with Beijing's strict controls over religion, open expressions of opposition over the reincarnation selection process have ended in the jailing of scores of Buddhist monks.