By Catherine Dodge
The Dalai Lama holds his U.S. Congressional Gold Medal as (from L-R) first lady Laura Bush, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), U.S. Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd (D-WV) and U.S. President George W. Bush look on during ceremonies awarding the honor to Tibet's exiled spiritual leader in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington October 17, 2007. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES)
October 17 - George W. Bush, the first sitting U.S. president to appear in public with the Dalai Lama, defied protests from China and urged the government in Beijing to welcome the Tibetan spiritual leader back to the country.
"Americans cannot look to the plight of the religiously oppressed and close our eyes or turn away," Bush said before presenting the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony today in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building. "And that is why I will continue to urge the leaders of China to welcome the Dalai Lama to China."
Bush's remarks echoed those of Republican and Democratic congressional leaders who preceded him in honoring the Dalai Lama.
"We honor him as a universal symbol of peace and tolerance, a shepherd for the faithful and a keeper of the flame for his people," the president said.
The medal is the highest civilian award given by Congress, and the event drew protests from Chinese officials who said the recognition and Bush's attendance at the ceremony amounted to interference with China's internal affairs.
The Chinese regard the Dalai Lama, 72, as a political refugee and a leader of a secessionist movement. Tibet had varying degrees of autonomy until the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, prompting a failed revolt in 1959. The Dalai Lama then fled to India and has since called first for Tibetan independence and, later, for a form of autonomy that includes religious freedoms.Applause
A Tibetan flag flies above a crowd in front of the Capitol during festivities celebrating the Dalai Lama in Washington, DC. President George W. Bush Wednesday defied China and became the first US leader to appear publicly with the Dalai Lama, as the Tibetan spiritual leader accepted Congress's top civilian honor.(AFP/Mandel Ngan)
The Dalai Lama entered the Rotunda to applause from the crowd and sat next to Bush for the ceremony.
U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged China to invite the Dalai Lama to the Chinese capital for "serious discussions."
"He accepts the sovereignty of China" in Tibet, Lantos said. "Let this man of peace visit Beijing."
Bush's attendance at today's event drew a sharp reaction from China's government.
"The presence of the U.S. president at this congressional ceremony for the Dalai Lama greatly offends China," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in a regular briefing in Beijing yesterday.
Bush brushed aside China's criticism, saying he raised the issue of the meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao when they met in Sydney in September.
"I brought it up," Bush said at a White House news conference earlier today. "And I said I'm going because I want to honor this man."
The president said he has "consistently told the Chinese that religious freedom is in their nation's interest. I've also told them that I think it's in their interest to meet with the Dalai Lama."
Bush met privately at the White House with the Dalai Lama yesterday for about 30 minutes. It was their fourth meeting.