HANGZHOU, China—Speaking Tibetan in a gravelly voice, a 16-year-old Tibetan lama made a rare appearance Thursday before an international audience of Buddhist monks and Communist Party dignitaries.
The lanky teenager, the disputed 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet, spoke into a bank of microphones, defending China's record on religion and endorsing patriotism.
China's communist leaders appointed the boy more than a decade ago as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Whisked away by the government, never to be seen again, was another boy who Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, said was the true reincarnation.
The disputed Panchen Lama, who's almost never seen in public, occupied center stage at the opening of the World Buddhist Forum, a stage-managed event meant to show that communist leaders are relaxing their grip on religion. Even so, his scripted lines reflected how Beijing still directs religious issues.
The four-day forum is the first global religious conference in China since 1949, when the communists, who officially are atheists, took power.
Scholars said Beijing sponsored the forum because it saw convergence between Buddhist pacifism and its own desire to cast China's rise as nonthreatening.
"It's a platform to show the world that China is a peace-loving nation, and that it is in accordance with religions like Buddhism," said He Guanghu, a professor of religious studies at People's University in Beijing.
The forum opened just days before President Hu Jintao heads to the United States next week for a summit with President Bush.
As monks, scholars and believers from 37 nations looked on, a senior Communist Party official, Liu Yandong, opened the conference, declaring that the quest for harmony and peace is "inherent in the Chinese mentality."
In a six-minute speech, the Panchen Lama emphasized patriotism and exhorted Chinese Buddhists to the task of "defending the nation."
"Chinese society provides a favorable environment for Buddhist belief," said the teenager, Gyaltsen Norbu, clad in maroon and orange robes.
"For thousands of years, Tibetan Buddhism has observed the fine tradition of loving the nation and Buddhism," he said, according to an official transcript. "In this new era, we need to shoulder the historical responsibility of defending the nation."
Notably absent was the Dalai Lama, who hasn't been allowed into China since he fled to exile in India 47 years ago as Chinese troops occupied Tibet.
The communists long have vilified the Dalai Lama and demanded that he abandon hope for Tibetan independence. The Dalai Lama long has said that he seeks not independence but cultural and religious autonomy.
"He should have been here. We'd welcome him here," said Zhuo Zangcangrenboqie, an abbot from a monastery in Sichuan province, near Tibet.
Even so, the abbot said the conference brought joy to many Buddhists.
"This conference is very precious to us. We seldom have a chance to meet," he said.
China allows five official religions—Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Protestantism and Catholicism—but it controls the leadership of each one and suppresses underground religious activity.
Human rights advocates have reported that crackdowns in Tibet have resulted in the incarceration of many monks and nuns. Authorities also keep dozens of Catholic and Protestant clergy members in jails or labor camps and strictly control Islam for fear that imams could challenge communist rule.
"China is prepared to go to enormous lengths to present a misleading picture of official tolerance of Tibetan Buddhism," said Matt Whitticase of the Free Tibet Campaign, based in London. "Despite hosting the World Buddhist Forum, China should not be considered to be relaxing its rigid control and repression of Tibetan Buddhism."
Charles Willemen, a scholar of Buddhism at the Belgian Royal Academy of Sciences, said sponsoring the forum helped Beijing pull closer to Taiwan, the self-governed island that China claims as its territory. Scores of Taiwanese Buddhists are attending and speaking at the forum.
During the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong urged young zealots onto the streets, organized religion became a target. Mobs destroyed churches and temples and persecuted religious leaders.
The era left a stigma on Buddhism in China.
"There was a perception that Buddhism is pessimistic, not scientific and superstitious," said Poon Chung-kwong, the president of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a forum participant.
As China opened after 1978, authorities allowed new temples to be built. The nation has about 200,000 monks and as many as 100 million sympathizers and followers of Buddhism.
The Panchen Lama didn't remain for much of Thursday's sessions and didn't mingle with participants.
Yang Zengwen, the head of Buddhist studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, dismissed questions about whether the Panchen Lama ever will have much influence over Tibetan Buddhists. "He's legitimate," he said.
The Panchen Lama could play an important role when the Dalai Lama, who is 70, dies. The Panchen Lama would act as Tibet's religious head while senior lamas look for a boy who would be the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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