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The following op-ed appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 5, 2015
Today, July 6, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, a modern-day exemplar of liberty, will turn 80.
It is fitting that in Philadelphia, where our great Declaration was signed, the National Constitution Center will bestow the Liberty Medal in October on this remarkable advocate for human rights, including religious freedom.
While much of the world will be showering the Tibetan Buddhist leader with accolades, one entity will be conspicuously silent: the government of China.
For more than a half century, China and the Dalai Lama have represented two opposite paths for humanity. While China is a serious human-rights violator, the Dalai Lama is the embodiment of a better way.
While China has long been engaged in a systematic effort to stamp out Tibetan culture and religion, one that has intensified with time, the Dalai Lama has taken steps to preserve Tibetan heritage while in exile in India, including building a library to further that aim.
While China has frequently warred against its own people, gunning down pro-democracy protesters in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize that same year.
While China continues to persecute religious communities, from Christians to Uighur Muslims, Buddhists to Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama champions religious freedom and interfaith respect, and has met with leaders of other faiths across the globe.
It is no surprise, then, that China’s government has sought to silence or diminish him for so long.
A notorious example happened 20 years ago, on May 17, 1995. On that day, Beijing abducted a 6-year-old boy whom the Dalai Lama had designated three days earlier as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama — a key position in Tibetan Buddhism — replacing him with its own hand-picked choice.
Besides being a human-rights atrocity in itself, this action was a brazen attempt by the state to choose the leadership of a religious community. Beijing had no business being involved, let alone dictating the outcome.
Yet Beijing did get involved. And that’s what it continues to do with Tibetans, especially Buddhists.
Since 2008, it has ramped up repression of Buddhists across Tibet, through harassment, imprisonment, and torture — incidents that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we serve, continues to document.
In March 2014, following his release from prison, Goshul Lobsang died from injuries sustained while incarcerated for his role in protesting local Chinese authorities in 2008. He had been subjected to extreme malnourishment and brutal torture, including regular pain-inducing injections and repeated stabbings.
Meanwhile, the horrors of self-immolation have continued. In recent years, at least 141 Tibetan Buddhists, including monks and nuns, have set themselves ablaze to protest China’s repression.
And in March of this year, Beijing continued its journey through the realm of the ridiculous, with the officially atheist regime accusing the Dalai Lama of blasphemy for suggesting reincarnation might cease with him.
Over the past year, China’s government has persecuted others as well. Officials have bulldozed churches, torn down crosses, and jailed pastors; they have detained and tortured Falun Gong members and inhibited many Uighur Muslims from observing Ramadan and practicing their faith year-round.
How should the United States respond in its dealings with China?
Our State Department can continue to designate China a “country of particular concern,” marking it as among the world’s worst religious freedom abusers.
Congress can keep spotlighting China’s prisoners of conscience through its Defending Freedoms Project — created in partnership with USCIRF, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and Amnesty International.
At every turn, we can tell China’s leaders by word and deed that respect comes not through wealth or power but by honoring, not bullying, people who heed the call of conscience over the dictates of the state.
That is the Dalai Lama’s message and the creed of our country as well.
Katrina Lantos Swett is a USCIRF commissioner. firstname.lastname@example.org