Fall 2000, Vol. 3, No. 3

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 3


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Taking Stock

Preacher Joe

Cult Fighting in Massachusetts

The Mexican Election: Bringing the Church Back In

Rome, Relativism, and Reaction

Waco Redux: Trial and Error

Tibet I: Lama on the Lam

The Never Ending Story

Tibet II: Monastic Spinmeister

by William K. Piotrowski

"We have to ask a fundamental question: What role does religion have to play in helping resolve these conflicts or, on the other extreme, exacerbating these conflicts?"

- Bawa Jain, Secretary General of the Millennium World Peace Summit

It’s a good question, and a pressing one in many parts of the world. And so, summoned to participate in the Millennium World Peace Summit, more than 1,000 religious leaders from around the world attended a four-day summit in New York City, beginning August 28.

The brainchild of a meeting between U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Ted Turner, the summit was supposed to spread a common agreement that religion should be a force for peace around the globe. That was the plan.

What actually happened, with the enthusiastic assistance of American journalists, was a savvy intervention by the Dalai Lama that gave a boost to his continuing campaign against the Chinese occupation of Tibet—and demonstrated his mastery of the media.

At root, the story caught hold because of the U.N.’s flagrant ambivalence. On the one hand, the organization wanted to hold a conference on religion and world conflict. On the other, it wanted to respect the sensibilities of powerful member governments like China, which have less than ideal track records on religious liberty.

As early as October 9, 1999, Jonathan Petre of the London Telegraph wrote an article suggesting that it would be difficult to meet both objectives. He noted that conference planners seemed to be hedging on the question of who should attend. "The gathering will not include politicians but it should feed into the General Assembly," principal conference organizer Bawa Jain told Petre. Jain added that the process of selecting delegates had not been completed and, reading between the lines, Petre observed, "[O]ne notable absentee, however, is likely to be the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, because his presence at the summit might inflame the Chinese, who hold one of the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council."

The role or nonrole of the Dalai Lama at the summit remained an internal debate until early August, about a month before the conference was scheduled to begin. At that point, the Dalai Lama’s staff made public a letter that rejected an offer to speak to delegates at the end of the conference, rather than participating as a delegate himself. Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times wrote on August 3 that the conference planners had asked the Dalai Lama to "deliver the keynote address at the closing session, to be held not at the United Nations but at the Waldorf-Astoria."

From this point forward the media fixed their attention on the missing lama. In his rejection of the organizers’ invitation, the Dalai Lama’s spokesman, Nawang Rabgyal, said: "His Holiness has never been comfortable accepting invitations that are made out of compulsion rather than willingly."

Goodstein revealed that Jain had met with the Dalai Lama in Israel in November 1999 to tell him that he would not be invited to the conference as a delegate. "It’s been very clear with the Chinese from Day 1, and it’s been very clear with the office of the secretary general that within the political framework of the United Nations there are certain constraints, and if you decide to have this event with the U.N., then there are political constraints," Jain said. "Not that I agree with it, but I abide by it." The Dalai Lama, he said, responded by giving the conference his blessing and "called it an opportunity that should proceed despite his absence."

In response to Goodstein’s story, human rights leaders sprang into action in support of the Dalai Lama. Desmond Tutu took to the pulpit to proclaim that the Dalai Lama’s dis-invitation "compromises the integrity of the United Nations, and the credibility of the summit." Furthermore, Tutu said, "Apart from anything else, the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of a major religion, and it just doesn’t make sense that he has not been invited." Charles Bell of the Daily News quoted Tutu later on August 26 as saying that the Dalai Lama’s absence is "bizarre, unbelievable."

From that point on, the Dalai Lama succeeded in taking a ho-hum conference about the virtues of peace making and turning it into a high profile forum for Tibetan freedom and China bashing.

Organizers struggled bravely to justify their flip flops. Manoel de Almeida e Silva, Annan’s deputy spokesman, told the Times that "there are a number of countries here that feel that certain issues are more controversial, have political implications for them, and which they are very sensitive about, and that certainly is the case with Tibet for China."

The Washington Post quoted Annan himself on August 25 saying, "Many people are understandably and deeply disappointed that the Dalai Lama will not be here for the religious summit. But let me also say that this…is really a house for the member states, and their sensitivities matter."

China mobilized its defense, summoning spokespersons from government-approved religious groups. Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan, head of the government-controlled China Patriotic Catholic Association, described the omission of the Dalai Lama in communist political terms in an article by Ewen MacAskill of the London Guardian on August 26. "The Dalai Lama has been engaged in splittist activities and has created trouble for Tibet, and his presence at the meeting is inconsistent with the theme of the summit," Bishop Tieshan said.

As it turned out, the Dalai Lama made sure that he had his own say at the conference. A delegation of four high-ranking Tibetan monks representing him read a statement from him that spoke of, as Colum Lynch reported in the August 30 Washington Post, "forgiveness and reconciliation." At that, the official China delegation walked out. Later, according to the Daily News, Master Shenghui, vice president of the government-controlled Buddhist Association of China, "called the Dalai Lama’s absence a ‘clever’ ploy, and accused him of ‘dishonoring’ religion."

Ultimately, media coverage strayed half-heartedly back to the original objective of the conference, as close to 1,000 rabbis, monks, swamis, and ministers signed a document entitled "Commitment to Global Peace." Gustav Niebuhr of the New York Times explained the document on September 1, saying, "The document, which briefly acknowledges that war and violence ‘are sometimes perpetuated in the name of religion,’ pledges its signers to work with the United Nations and ‘all men and women of good will’ toward peace. It asks signatories to work for freedom of religion, toward narrowing the wealth gap between rich and poor, and on behalf of environmental protection."

The planners hoped that delegates would act as satellites of the U.N., bringing the message of peace to their corner of the globe. But on August 29, George Melloan of the Wall Street Journal reported that "shortly after one Chinese delegate was proclaiming a ‘golden age’ of religion in China, Chinese police arrested 130 evangelical Protestants in central China."

The road to world peace will certainly be a lengthy one, and one might ask after this conference if religion is likely to provide the best vehicle for the trip. As the Daily News’ Bell pointed out, it was Ted Turner himself who proclaimed to the American Humanist Association years ago, "I wouldn’t count on the religions of the world joining forces to save the planet. They don’t see the world as important."