WASHINGTON — How much will President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama interact during their first joint public event at the National Prayer Breakfast? Heaven only knows.
Thursday’s event at the Washington Hilton is drawing some 3,600 U.S. and international leaders and criticism from China, which considers the Dalai Lama an anti-Chinese separatist because of his quest for greater Tibetan autonomy. Outside the hotel, hundreds of protesters gathered in the predawn darkness waving Tibetan flags.
Obama was being seated at the head table with other speakers for the annual hourlong discussion on faith that brings together leaders from different parties and religions. Organizers say the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism will not speak but sit in the audience of about 3,600, seated close to the dais and actor Richard Gere, a friend and follower.
With such close proximity, a chance encounter is possible between Obama and the Dalai Lama, who spoke Wednesday at a luncheon closed to the media. But the White House downplayed the prospect of any official engagement, saying there is no specific meeting between the fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners to announce.
China also protested each of Obama’s three meetings with the Dalai Lama, which were always held privately without any news coverage because of the sensitivity of the encounter. President George W. Bush ignored furious Chinese objections when he presented the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal at the Capitol Rotunda in 2007.
Last year at the prayer breakfast, Obama criticized China for failing to protect religious freedom. When meeting with Chinese leaders, he said, “I stress that realizing China’s potential rests on upholding universal rights, including for Christians and Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims.”
National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Obama plans to speak on the importance of upholding religious freedoms again this year. The message will undoubtedly be underscored by the Dalai Lama’s presence.
“The president is a strong supporter of the Dalai Lama’s teachings and preserving Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions,” Ventrell said.
China warned once again this week that it strongly opposes any country’s leader meeting with the Dalai Lama, who fled to exile in India after a failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, and regard it as interference in China’s internal affairs.
“Tibet-related issues concern China’s core interest and national feelings,” said Hong Lei, spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a daily briefing on Tuesday. “We oppose to foreign countries’ interfering with China’s internal affairs and meeting with the Dalai Lama. We hope the U.S. leader can look at the bigger picture of the relations and properly handle this issue.”
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who plans to sit next to the Dalai Lama, said the spiritual leader’s attendance has nothing to do with China.
“It’s just a special time when people from the entire world come together to talk about their faith and pray together,” Boozman said. “Especially in these troubled times, it’s a remarkable time. I sense the Dalai Lama being there says how important this has become.”
The troubled times led Jordan’s King Abdullah II to cancel his plans to attend the breakfast, after Islamic State militants released a video this week showing a Jordanian pilot being burned to death. Organizers said a stand-in for the king will read the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan, who saved a stranger who had been beaten and left for dead. Also planning to speak is Dr. Kent Brantly, who contracted Ebola while helping patients in Liberia and recovered in the United States.
The Dalai Lama, wrapping up a three-day visit to Washington, plans to speak later Thursday at a dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims on peaceful coexistence. Also expected are prominent American Muslims and a representative of Iraq’s most prominent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Danny Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, told reporters Wednesday that it is appropriate for the Dalai Lama to attend the prayer breakfast because of his stature as a religious leader, and that Obama is a religious man who cherishes the event every year.
“I’m unaware of any prospect of the president and any particular religious leader having any encounter on the margins of the prayer breakfast,” Russel said. Asked about the prospect of a protest from Beijing over the whole affair, he said, “As for U.S. diplomats being summoned to the Foreign Ministry to receive the views of the Chinese government on Tibet, that’s not an unusual occurrence.”
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington and Did Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.