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U.S. defends Obama's Dalai Lama decision

WASHINGTON -- The Dalai Lama on Monday started his first Washington visit in nearly two decades to lack a presidential meeting, as Barack Obama's administration insisted it still respected the Tibetan leader.

Fellow Tibetan exiles welcomed the globetrotting 74-year-old monk as he arrived at his Washington hotel, starting a week in the U.S. capital to feature spiritual teachings and talks with congressional leaders.

But for the first time since 1991, when the Dalai Lama held his first presidential meeting with George H.W. Bush, the White House declined talks with the Nobel Peace laureate.

Obama has sought broader ties with China, a major trade partner and biggest holder of the soaring U.S. debt. China sent troops into Tibet in 1950 and in recent months has ramped up pressure on other nations to shun the Dalai Lama.

The State Department said Obama would see the Dalai Lama “at a mutually agreeable time.” Supporters of the Tibetan leader are hoping for a meeting by year's end, after Obama pays his first presidential visit to China in November.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that Maria Otero, the U.S. special coordinator on Tibet, would meet the Dalai Lama on his current trip.

“We've decided to meet with the Dalai Lama because of our respect for his position, for the fact that he is a revered spiritual leader,” Kelly told reporters.

“Our position regarding China is clear, that we want to engage China. We think China is an important global player,” Kelly said.

He added: “We also don't try and downplay some of the concerns we have about China and some of our disagreements with China in the area of human rights, religious freedom and freedom of expression.”

But some supporters of the Dalai Lama were outraged by Obama's decision, fearing that China could interpret it as carte blanche to clamp down on dissent in the Himalayan territory.

“This is a strategic snub that sends the wrong message to Beijing and to China's religious communities and rights activists,” said Leonard Leo, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a non-partisan government panel.

“Tibetans are being harassed, tortured and jailed right now for simple devotion to the Dalai Lama,” he said.

“President Obama should demonstrate his unwavering support for those seeking to establish the rule of law, religious freedom or other human rights in China — he can start by meeting with the Dalai Lama as soon as possible and speaking out forcefully during his November trip to China,” he said.

The Dalai Lama's entourage, however, politely accepted Obama's decision.

Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's negotiator in infrequent talks with Beijing, said the Tibetans took a “broader and long-term perspective” that it was better to meet after Obama's visit to China.

“The Dalai Lama has always been supportive of American engagement with China,” Gyari said in a statement.

“Our hope is that the cooperative U.S.-Chinese relationship that President Obama's administration seeks will create conditions that support the resolution of the legitimate grievances of the Tibetan people,” he said.

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