WASHINGTON -- The Dalai Lama accepted the Congressional Gold Medal Wednesday, joining President Bush and the leaders of Congress in urging reconciliation with the Chinese government that has kept him in exile for nearly half a century.
The world is waiting "to see how China's concepts of harmonious society and peaceful rights" unfold, the saffron-robed Tibetan monk said after becoming the 146th recipient of the most prestigious award bestowed by Congress. He repeated his long-held position that he is only seeking autonomy for the people of Tibet, not independence from China.
President Bush, defying Chinese complaints about the public honoring of a man it regards as a threat to Beijing's control of Tibet, called on Chinese leaders to welcome the Dalai Lama to the communist nation. The president called him a "universal symbol of peace and tolerance, a shepherd of the faithful and a keeper of the flame for his people."
"America cannot look to the plight of the religiously oppressed and close their eyes or turn away," said Bush, who sat next to the Dalai Lama during the ceremony and personally handed the medal to him.
"Let this man of peace visit Beijing," said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D-Calif., saying such a gesture would ensure the right atmosphere for the Beijing Olympics next summer.
The 72-year-old Buddhist leader struggled to deliver his remarks in English, but laughed at his own mistakes and joked that politicians, despite their good intentions, sometimes tell "a little lie here and there."
China vehemently protested the elaborate public ceremony. But at a news conference earlier in the day, Bush said that he did not think his attendance at the ceremony would damage U.S. relations with China.
"I support religious freedom; he supports religious freedom. ... I want to honor this man," Bush told reporters at the White House. "I have consistently told the Chinese that religious freedom is in their nation's interest. I've also told them that it's in their interest to meet with the Dalai Lama and will say so at the ceremony."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said this was the first time a U.S. president has appeared in public with the Dalai Lama. The Bush administration took pains on Tuesday to keep a private meeting with the president and the Dalai Lama from further infuriating China: no media access, not even a handout photo.
The Dalai Lama is lauded in much of the world as a figure of moral authority, but Beijing demonizes the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and claims he seeks to destroy China's sovereignty by pushing for independence for Tibet.
China had demanded that the United States cancel this week's celebrations. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing said the events "seriously wounded the feelings of the Chinese people and interfered with China's internal affairs."
"China is strongly resentful of and resolutely opposes this and has made solemn representation to the U.S. side," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in a comment carried Wednesday by the official Xinhua News Agency.
"We seriously urged the U.S. side to correct such wrongdoing and stop interfering in China's internal affairs in any forms," Liu said.
Chinese state media declared earlier Wednesday the U.S. "must be held responsible for the consequences."
"We are not willing to see damage done to relations between the two countries, but this event will certainly cast a shadow over the relations," the official China Daily newspaper said in an unsigned editorial.
U.S. lawmakers regularly criticize Beijing for human rights abuses and a massive military buildup and claim that China ignores abuse by unsavory foreign governments in Sudan and Myanmar in its pursuit of energy and business deals.
The Bush administration also finds fault with China but is usually more measured as it seeks to manage a booming trade relationship and a desire to enlist Chinese cooperation in world affairs.
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