JOHANNESBURG – The South African government said Tuesday that the Dalai Lama is not welcome here until after the 2010 football World Cup for fear that Tibet will overshadow all other issues.
Earlier Tuesday, organizers said a peace conference had been postponed indefinitely over South Africa's decision to bar the Dalai Lama from attending.
Organizers said they hoped to hold the event when the Tibetan spiritual leader who has clashed with China could attend and they hoped that would be before next year's World Cup.
Asked by reporters whether South Africa would issue the Dalai Lama a visa before then, presidential spokesman Thabo Masebe told reporters: "No, we won't."
He said he did not want a visit to be a distraction at a time when South Africa was hoping to showcase its transformation from pariah state to international role model.
"You can't remove Tibet from (the Dalai Lama)," Masebe said. "That becomes the issue and South Africa is no longer the issue."
Masebe had said a day earlier that South Africa would not allow the Dalai Lama to visit for the peace conference, generating sharp criticism. Fellow Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu as well as members of the Nobel Committee pulled out of the conference in response.
Friday's conference in Johannesburg had been meant to highlight ways football can promote peace.
Irvin Khoza, who is chairman of the South African World Cup organizing committee and whose professional football league was promoting the conference, told reporters Tuesday that the conference has been postponed indefinitely "as result of the controversy surrounding the Dalai Lama."
Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela's grandson and a member of the conference organizing committee, said he wanted the Dalai Lama there when the conference is held. Barring a leader of the Dalai Lama's stature, the younger Mandela said, "is really worrying and saddening. Where are we headed in the future?"
"I don't think as a sovereign country we need to succumb to international pressures," he added, referring to criticism that South Africa acted to placate China, an important trading partner. Government spokesman Masebe has insisted, though, that South Africa did not act under pressure.
Asked about the South African decision, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said more and more countries were embracing Beijing's contention that Tibetan Buddhism's top cleric was using his religious title as cover for pursuing independence for his Himalayan homeland.
Qin did not mention South Africa by name, but said Beijing "appreciated efforts by all nations that support China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and oppose Tibetan independence." China is "resolutely opposed" to any country providing the Dalai Lama with a forum, he told reporters at a regularly scheduled news conference.
Last week marked the one-year anniversary of anti-government riots in Lhasa, Tibet's regional capital, and 50 years since the Dalai Lama escaped into exile in India after Chinese troops crushed a Tibetan uprising.
China claims Tibet as part of its territory, but many Tibetans say Chinese rule deprives them of religious freedom and autonomy. Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of pushing for Tibetan independence and fomenting anti-Chinese protests.