WASHINGTON – President Bush and the leaders of Congress put aside their differences Wednesday to bestow the nation's highest civilian honor upon the Dalai Lama, calling the exiled Tibetan religious leader a "warrior for peace."
The Dalai Lama said he was "deeply touched" by his receipt of the Congressional Gold Medal, which he received in an ornate ceremony under the U.S. Capitol dome — but not before having a hearty laugh over his inability to speak perfect English.
"It is a great honor for me to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. This ... will bring tremendous joy and encouragement to the Tibetan people, for whom I have a special responsibility," the Dalai Lama said, reading from his prepared remarks.
The Dalai Lama was surrounded by top congressional leaders and President Bush Wednesday as he prepared to receive the nation's top civilian honor. As Tibet's top Buddhist leader, he has been fighting for Tibetan autonomy from the Chinese government. His warm reception this week in Washington, which also included a private Oval Office meeting, has riled Chinese officials.
"I believe that this ... also sends a powerful message to those many individuals who are dedicated toward promoting peace, understanding and harmony," the exiled Buddhist leader told the crowd gathered in the Capitol Rotunda, continuing his call for Tibetan autonomy in China.
"I am deeply touched that this great honor has been given to me, for this monk, born of a simple family from a remote mountain region of Tibet."
Leading up to the presentation of the medal, President Bush and top leaders of Congress called on China to accept the Buddhist monk into their capitol.
Bush said "the stubborn endurance of religious oppression" over the past century, and the fact that religious diversity is a "source of strength" has led him to call on Beijing to accept the Dalai Lama.
"That is why I will continue to urge the leaders of China to welcome the Dalai Lama to China. They will find this good man to be a man of peace and reconciliation," Bush said.
Bush escorted the Dalai Lama to U.S. Capitol Rotunda, where the Tibetan leader was clad in orange and crimson robes before he clasped his hands and took his seat, just before he was to receive the award.
The Dalai Lama sat between Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as lawmakers and other guests praised the Tibetan leader.
"It is a rare privilege to share this stage and this day with His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. He is a one-man warrior for peace. He is a one-man warrior for spirituality," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sad.
"The efforts of this blessed man are not limited to Tibet. His wisdom and his compassion transcend international boundaries," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
"At a moment in world history when nothing is as short as a supply as moral authority, this humble Buddhist monk has an inexhaustible supply," Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., said.
Lantos also called on China to allow the Dalai Lama to visit Beijing in the coming months as a display of tolerance leading up to next year's Olympic games there.
"To listen to him is to learn about wisdom. To be close to him is to feel the presence of something very special," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also praised Bush for his presence in the Capitol Wednesday, saying he "could have stayed home," but instead decided to join the list of leaders who see "the Tibetan people have a right to their heritage and their freedom, and the man we honor today is not only courageous, but right to demand both."
China has issued strong words against the United States for giving the Tibetan Buddhist monk such a high honor. The Dalai Lama, exiled from China after his homeland was annexed by China, has fought for political and religious autonomy from the Chinese government.
Earlier Wednesday, Bush said during a news conference that he would say during the ceremony that he would call on Chinese leaders to meet with the Dalai Lama. Bush also defended the awarding Wednesday of the nation's top civilian honor to the Dalai Lama,
"I admire the Dalai Lama a lot. ... I support religious freedom," Bush said in a short-notice press conference at the White House.
Bush also said he had personally spoken with Chinese President Hu Jintao to say he would be attending the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for the Dalai Lama, and Bush said the Chinese would be better off having diplomatic relations with the Tibetan leader.
"I have consistently told the Chinese that religious freedom is in their nation's interest. I've also told them that I think it's in their interest to meet with the Dalai Lama and will say so at the ceremony today in Congress," Bush said.
"If they were to sit down with the Dalai Lama they would find him to be a man of peace and reconciliation. And I think it's in the country's interest to allow him to come to China and meet with him," he added.
During the Capitol ceremony, the Dalai Lama first hesitated at the podium as he was about to give his acceptance speech. He explained that he had planned to give it in Tibetan, but then thought that the audience might be "bored."
Then he explained that even after half a century of trying to learn the English language, "now, still, my English is very, very poor. ... My English level acting like kindergarten," he said in a heavy accent.
He powered on, however, only pausing briefly a few times to check with an aide over pronunciation.