Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has been honored at a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol attended by President Bush. The awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama marked the first time a U.S. president has made such a high profile public appearance with the Tibetan leader. President Bush joined lawmakers in urging China to hold direct talks with the exiled leader. Congressional correspondent Dan Robinson has more on the story.
It was an unprecedented tribute to the 72-year-old spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, the symbol of his people's aspirations for autonomy for a half a century.
In presenting the Dalai Lama with the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow, the president and congressional leaders underscored hopes for a resolution of the decades-long Tibetan dispute with China, and direct talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama.
"It [Congress] has conferred this honor on a figure whose work continues, and whose outcome remains uncertain," said President Bush. "In doing so America raises its voice in the call for religious liberty and basic human rights."
Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell also spoke.
PELOSI: "With this gold medal we affirm the special relationship between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the United States."
MCCONNELL: "We have reached out in solidarity to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, and the Chinese government needs to know that we will continue to do so. The U.S. government stands with Tibet."
The Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. He has long said he seeks greater religious and cultural freedoms not independence for Tibet's six million people.
The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Dalai Lama used his remarks to repeat his readiness for dialogue with Chinese leaders aimed at meaningful autonomy for Tibet.
"Let me take this opportunity to once again appeal to the Chinese leadership to recognize the grave problems in Tibet, the genuine grievances and deep resentments of the Tibetan people inside Tibet, and to have the courage and the wisdom to address these problems realistically in a spirit of reconciliation," said the Dalai Lama.
Earlier at a White House news conference, President Bush faced questions about China's condemnation of the tribute to the Dalai Lama. He had this response:
"I have consistently told the Chinese that religious freedom is in their nation's interest," said Mr. Bush. "I have also told them that I think it is in their interest to meet with the Dalai Lama."
Among other tributes, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel called the Dalai Lama a man of profound spiritual conviction who is devoted to his people.
"Who believes that, like all people, his own in Tibet have the right to live a sovereign religious and cultural life," said Elie Wiesel. "This is a right that must never be deprived from anyone."
Some U.S. lawmakers were more blunt in their remarks at Wednesday's ceremony .
Tom Lantos is Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is ranking Republican on the panel.
LANTOS: "There is nothing that will guarantee the right atmosphere for the Beijing Olympics more certainly and more forcefully than your inviting this man of peace to Beijing for serious discussions and the once and for all resolving of the dispute between you and His Holiness."
LEHTINEN: "His heroic efforts on behalf of six million Tibetan people who continue to suffer under the iron grip of Beijing's Communist rulers. They continue to brave systematic attacks aimed at destroying their national and cultural identity."
In their remarks praising the Dalai Lama, U.S. lawmakers also touched on the human rights situation in Burma, where another Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains in detention amid a military crackdown on democracy protesters.
After the ceremony, the Dalai Lama enjoyed Tibetan musical and dance performances by groups from across the United States gathered outside the U.S. Capitol building.