President Obama met Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalia Lama for more than an hour today in the Map Room of the White House, a move signaling Obama's solidarity with Tibet's quest for human rights and his willingness to irritate the communist Chinese government.
Following the meeting, the Dalai Lama told reporters he spoke to Obama about human rights and promoting religious harmony. The Dalai Lama says he has admired America since his childhood as a champion of "democracy, freedom and human value." He also praised Obama for "always showing his genuine concern" for Tibet.
Obama made no public remarks at the meeting. White House reporters were not permitted to photograph the president and the 74-year-old exiled Buddhist monk. The White House released a photo of the meeting later today.
The Dalai Lama, who, like Obama, has won a Nobel Peace Prize, left China for India in 1959 and has built a global following for Tibetan human rights. He leads a government in exile in Dharamsala, India.
Every U.S. president dating back to George Herbert Walker Bush has met the Dalai Lama.
Almost a year ago, the Dalai Lama accused China of turning Tibet into "Hell on earth." His holiness advocates autonomy for Tibet. Some younger Tibetans have been prodding the Dalai Lama to press for independence. China, which rules the rugged Tibetan region with stern military might, rejects autonomy and independence.
In a statement released by the White House, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama "stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China."
Gibbs said Obama also praised the Dalai Lama's "commitment to nonviolence and his pursuit of dialogue with the Chinese government. " Obama has prodded both sides in the struggle to re-open dialogue. Talks between envoys for China and Tibet resumed in January, something Gibbs said Obama "was pleased to hear about."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has denounced the meeting.
"China resolutely opposes the visit by the Dalai Lama to the United States, and resolutely opposes U.S. leaders having contact with the Dalai Lama," foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said.
Obama told Chinese leaders last fall he intended to meet with the Dalai Lama. Obama did not see his holiness during an extensive trip to the US in September of 2009, a move interpreted as an attempt to curry favor with Chinese leaders.
Gibbs said today Obama and the Dalai Lama "agreed on the importance of a positive and cooperative relationship between the United States and China.”
Before speaking to reporters briefly outside the White House, the Dalai Lama used his hand to imprint the image of a tiger in a snow bank outside the Briefing Room. The Chinese New Year, the year of the tiger, began Feb. 14.
The Dalai Lama then left the White House for a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Before doing so, he promised to speak to reporters at a nearby Washington hotel but admonished them to ask "no silly questions."
Senior White House Correspondent Major Garrett will have more on tonight's "Special Report with Bret Baier."