This year the United States will award one of its highest civilian honors, the Congressional Gold Medal, to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who left his homeland more than half a century ago.  VOA's Brent Hurd reports on how a group of young Tibetans worked behind the scenes here in Washington to lobby on behalf of the Dalai Lama on Capitol Hill.

The Dalai Lama's serene personality and messages of inter-religious harmony and universal compassion draw large audiences around the world.  In 1989, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for opposing violence in Tibet's struggle for freedom.  And this year the United States is honoring him with a Congressional Gold Medal.

Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, calls the Dalai Lama a unifying voice for world peace. "His holiness has traveled the world building bridges between and among the different faiths.  He has used his position to promote wisdom, compassion and nonviolence as a solution, not only in Tibet, but in other world conflicts."

Added Representative Dennis Kucinich, "We learn through celebrating the Dalai Lama's life the transformative power of love, the transformative power of compassion."

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest award bestowed by the legislative branch of the U.S. government.  Originally awarded for outstanding bravery on the battlefield, the Congressional Gold Medal is now awarded, from time to time, to people who have performed exceptional services to humanity.  Medals have gone to the late Pope John Paul the Second, Mother Teresa and the slain American civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Recognizing the symbolic importance of the award, a group of young Tibetans decided to plead the Dalai Lama's case to members of Congress months before the crucial vote.  The International Campaign for Tibet trains young Tibetans to become effective leaders in the Tibet movement.  Part of the their mission in Washington is to meet, face to face, with as many U.S. government officials as possible. 

Many lawmakers backed the campaign to honor the Dalai Lama, although some were less enthusiastic, because of Chinese opposition.

The Chinese government had strongly protested the idea of a Congressional Gold Medal for the Dalai Lama.  It opposes any country that offers the exiled spiritual leader a platform for what China considers his separatist demands of greater autonomy for Tibet within China.  

China has occupied Tibet since 1951.  Eight years later the Dalai Lama settled in India. 

The students lobbying in Congress addressed U.S.-Chinese relations. Student Sherab Tharchen  appealed directly to a congressional staffer: "There's an ongoing dialogue right now with China that is quite fragile.  With [the congressman's] support, getting the gold medal [for the Dalai Lama] will provide a little more leverage for Tibetan exiles.?

Though they didn't meet all the lawmakers they intended to, many of the young Tibetans were optimistic about their visit.

"It was a very good experience, and I expected to see some of the things I saw, like having a hard time trying to convince some of them,? said Dawa Bhuti Guso. ?But we were very successful in that we were able to convince others without much effort."

"Today we lobbied the [congressional] people.  It's really interesting.  Some of them did not know much about Tibet because maybe they are busy and they don't have time [to see us]," said Palden Kyab.

"If you sign on for the gold medal for his holiness, this is saying you are promoting peace in the world," suggested Tenzin Dickyi.

In the end, both chambers of Congress approved the measure and President Bush signed it into law.  The U.S. Mint is now striking the Dalai Lama's gold medal, as well as bronze duplicates that will be available to the public.  The Dalai Lama plans to travel to Washington this October to receive the award.  And many young Tibetans will undoubtedly be looking on with deep satisfaction at the role they played to help honor their spiritual leader.