Vol. 3, No. 3
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Taking Stock
Cult Fighting in Massachusetts
The Mexican Election: Bringing the Church Back In
Rome, Relativism, and Reaction
Waco Redux: Trial and Error
Tibet I: Lama on the Lam
The Never Ending Story
by William K.
"We have to ask a fundamental question: What role does religion have to play in
helping resolve these conflicts or, on the other extreme, exacerbating these
- Bawa Jain, Secretary General of the Millennium World Peace Summit
Its a good question, and a pressing one in many parts of the world. And so,
summoned to participate in the Millennium World Peace Summit, more than 1,000 religious
leaders from around the world attended a four-day summit in New York City, beginning
The brainchild of a meeting between U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Ted Turner,
the summit was supposed to spread a common agreement that religion should be a force for
peace around the globe. That was the plan.
What actually happened, with the enthusiastic assistance of American journalists, was a
savvy intervention by the Dalai Lama that gave a boost to his continuing campaign against
the Chinese occupation of Tibetand demonstrated his mastery of the media.
At root, the story caught hold because of the U.N.s flagrant ambivalence. On the
one hand, the organization wanted to hold a conference on religion and world conflict. On
the other, it wanted to respect the sensibilities of powerful member governments like
China, which have less than ideal track records on religious liberty.
As early as October 9, 1999, Jonathan Petre of the London Telegraph wrote an
article suggesting that it would be difficult to meet both objectives. He noted that
conference planners seemed to be hedging on the question of who should attend. "The
gathering will not include politicians but it should feed into the General Assembly,"
principal conference organizer Bawa Jain told Petre. Jain added that the process of
selecting delegates had not been completed and, reading between the lines, Petre observed,
"[O]ne notable absentee, however, is likely to be the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan
spiritual leader, because his presence at the summit might inflame the Chinese, who hold
one of the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council."
The role or nonrole of the Dalai Lama at the summit remained an internal debate until
early August, about a month before the conference was scheduled to begin. At that point,
the Dalai Lamas staff made public a letter that rejected an offer to speak to
delegates at the end of the conference, rather than participating as a delegate himself.
Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times wrote on August 3 that the conference
planners had asked the Dalai Lama to "deliver the keynote address at the closing
session, to be held not at the United Nations but at the Waldorf-Astoria."
From this point forward the media fixed their attention on the missing lama. In his
rejection of the organizers invitation, the Dalai Lamas spokesman, Nawang
Rabgyal, said: "His Holiness has never been comfortable accepting invitations that
are made out of compulsion rather than willingly."
Goodstein revealed that Jain had met with the Dalai Lama in Israel in November 1999 to
tell him that he would not be invited to the conference as a delegate. "Its
been very clear with the Chinese from Day 1, and its been very clear with the office
of the secretary general that within the political framework of the United Nations there
are certain constraints, and if you decide to have this event with the U.N., then there
are political constraints," Jain said. "Not that I agree with it, but I abide by
it." The Dalai Lama, he said, responded by giving the conference his blessing and
"called it an opportunity that should proceed despite his absence."
In response to Goodsteins story, human rights leaders sprang into action in
support of the Dalai Lama. Desmond Tutu took to the pulpit to proclaim that the Dalai
Lamas dis-invitation "compromises the integrity of the United Nations, and the
credibility of the summit." Furthermore, Tutu said, "Apart from anything else,
the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of a major religion, and it just doesnt make
sense that he has not been invited." Charles Bell of the Daily News quoted
Tutu later on August 26 as saying that the Dalai Lamas absence is "bizarre,
From that point on, the Dalai Lama succeeded in taking a ho-hum conference about the
virtues of peace making and turning it into a high profile forum for Tibetan freedom and
Organizers struggled bravely to justify their flip flops. Manoel de Almeida e Silva,
Annans deputy spokesman, told the Times that "there are a number of
countries here that feel that certain issues are more controversial, have political
implications for them, and which they are very sensitive about, and that certainly is the
case with Tibet for China."
The Washington Post quoted Annan himself on August 25 saying, "Many people
are understandably and deeply disappointed that the Dalai Lama will not be here for the
religious summit. But let me also say that this
is really a house for the member
states, and their sensitivities matter."
China mobilized its defense, summoning spokespersons from government-approved religious
groups. Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan, head of the government-controlled China Patriotic
Catholic Association, described the omission of the Dalai Lama in communist political
terms in an article by Ewen MacAskill of the London Guardian on August 26. "The Dalai
Lama has been engaged in splittist activities and has created trouble for Tibet, and his
presence at the meeting is inconsistent with the theme of the summit," Bishop Tieshan
As it turned out, the Dalai Lama made sure that he had his own say at the conference. A
delegation of four high-ranking Tibetan monks representing him read a statement from him
that spoke of, as Colum Lynch reported in the August 30 Washington Post,
"forgiveness and reconciliation." At that, the official China delegation walked
out. Later, according to the Daily News, Master Shenghui, vice president of the
government-controlled Buddhist Association of China, "called the Dalai Lamas
absence a clever ploy, and accused him of dishonoring
Ultimately, media coverage strayed half-heartedly back to the original objective of the
conference, as close to 1,000 rabbis, monks, swamis, and ministers signed a document
entitled "Commitment to Global Peace." Gustav Niebuhr of the New York Times
explained the document on September 1, saying, "The document, which briefly
acknowledges that war and violence are sometimes perpetuated in the name of
religion, pledges its signers to work with the United Nations and all men and
women of good will toward peace. It asks signatories to work for freedom of
religion, toward narrowing the wealth gap between rich and poor, and on behalf of
The planners hoped that delegates would act as satellites of the U.N., bringing the
message of peace to their corner of the globe. But on August 29, George Melloan of the Wall
Street Journal reported that "shortly after one Chinese delegate was proclaiming
a golden age of religion in China, Chinese police arrested 130 evangelical
Protestants in central China."
The road to world peace will certainly be a lengthy one, and one might ask after this
conference if religion is likely to provide the best vehicle for the trip. As the Daily
News Bell pointed out, it was Ted Turner himself who proclaimed to the American
Humanist Association years ago, "I wouldnt count on the religions of the world
joining forces to save the planet. They dont see the world as important."