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China World Buddhist Forum Excludes Dalai Lama

The first-ever World Buddhist Forum to take place in China opened with more than 1,000 Buddhist monks, nuns and scholars from around the globe attending. Not present was the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese authorities continue to ban.

The forum opened with great fanfare in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou and is seen by analysts as China's attempt to show it fosters religious freedom.

Among the speakers on the opening day was the Panchen Lama, the 16-year-old boy, seldom seen in public, that the Chinese Communist authorities have chosen to be the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama.

In remarks contained in an official translation, the Panchen Lama said Buddhism has made a commitment to defend the Chinese nation and society.

Many Tibetan Buddhists do not recognize the Panchen Lama installed by Beijing.

The Dalai Lama recognized a different boy as Panchen Lama in 1995, but that boy has not been seen in public since then and Chinese officials refuse to say where he is.

The Dalai Lama has been living in exile since 1959 when he fled following a revolt against China's takeover of Tibet. China has repeatedly refused to allow the spiritual leader to return, accusing him of working to split Tibet from the rest of China.

The Dalai Lama has called for greater autonomy for Tibet, but not independence.

Beatrice Leung, a professor of politics and sociology at Lignan University in Hong Kong and an expert on religion in China, says Beijing continues to see the Dalai Lama as a threat because of what he represents to millions of Buddhists in China.

"[The] Dalai Lama is an icon of authentic religion, in Buddhism, in Tibet. What Dalai Lama is really preaching is real religion. That means what he preaches, he himself practices," she said.

She says that holding a Buddhist conference does not necessarily mean that China is taking a significant step toward allowing more religious freedom. She says the communist leadership remains suspicious of any religious activity, especially that which occurs outside of its supervision.

"It is too early to say that China is not willing to open religion," added Leung. "But I think it is also too early to say China is wholeheartedly opening [to] religion, because religion is related to ideological problems. China takes religion as a frame of mind for any social movement. Look at Falun Gong."

Falun Gong is a spiritual movement labeled an "evil cult" by the Beijing government. The Chinese authorities systematically crack down on its members, along with those who practice other faiths outside institutions that are not registered with the state.

Negotiations have been under way recently between China and the Vatican as both sides try to reach an agreement on the appointing of bishops - a key obstacle that has prevented Beijing from normalizing relations with the Holy See.