State Department International Religious Freedom Report: 2002

TIBET

(The United States recognizes the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)–hereinafter referred to as “Tibet”–to be part of the People’s Republic of China. The preservation and development of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage and protection of its people’s fundamental human rights continue to be of concern.)

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China provides for freedom of religious belief and the freedom not to believe; however, the Government maintains tight controls on religious practices and places of worship in Tibet. Although the authorities permit many traditional religious practices and public manifestations of belief, they promptly and forcibly suppress those activities viewed as vehicles for political dissent, such as religious activities that are perceived as advocating Tibetan independence or any form of separatism (which the Chinese Government views as “splittist”).

The Government strictly controls access to and information about Tibet, and it is difficult to determine accurately the scope of religious freedom violations. Religious practice faced ongoing restrictions during the period covered by this report, but overall enforcement of such restrictions was less strict than in the period covered by the previous report. Nonetheless, the level of religious repression in Tibet remained high, and the Government’s record of respect for religious freedom remained poor.

Although the “patriotic education” campaign begun in the mid-1990’s officially has concluded, patriotic education activities continued at a lower level of intensity. Core requirements of “patriotic education,” such as the renunciation of the Dalai Lama and the acceptance of Tibet as a part of China, continue and engender resentment on the part of Tibetan Buddhists. Many monks and nuns continue to serve prison terms for their resistance to “patriotic education.” There were reports of the death of religious prisoners, as well as the imprisonment and abuse or torture of monks and nuns accused of political activism.

Although the Christian population in Tibet is extremely small, some converts reportedly are subject to social pressure and some reportedly have been disinherited by family members who practice Buddhism.

The U.S. Government continued to encourage greater religious freedom in Tibet by urging the central government and local authorities to respect religious freedom, by protesting credible reports of religious persecution or discrimination, by discussing specific cases with the authorities, and by requesting information about specific incidents.

Section I. Religious Demography

The TAR has a total area of 471,700 square miles, and according to the 2000 census, its official population is approximately 2.6 million. Most ethnic Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism. Many ethnic Tibetan government officials and some ethnic Tibetan Communist Party members quietly practice Tibetan Buddhism. While officials state that there is no Falun Gong activity in the TAR, reports indicate there are small numbers of practitioners among the ethnic Han population. Small numbers of Tibetan and Han Muslims and Christians also live in the region.

Chinese officials state that Tibet has more than 46,000 Buddhist monks and nuns and more than 1,700 monasteries, temples, and religious sites. Officials have cited these same figures since 1996, although since then the numbers of monks and nuns have dropped significantly at many sites as a result of the “patriotic education” campaign and the expulsion from monasteries and nunneries of many monks and nuns who refused to denounce the Dalai Lama or who were found to be “politically unqualified” to belong to religious orders. These numbers represent only the TAR; more than 100,000 monks and nuns live in other Tibetan areas of China, including parts of Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China provides for freedom of religious belief and the freedom not to believe; however, the Government seeks to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of the activity of religious groups. The Government maintains tight controls on religious practices and places of worship in Tibet. Although the authorities permit many traditional religious practices and public manifestations of belief, they promptly and forcibly suppress those activities viewed as vehicles for political dissent, such as religious activities that are perceived as advocating Tibetan independence or any form of separatism (which the Government describes as “splittist”). The authorities also regularly require monks and nuns to make statements overtly supporting government or party policies on religion and history, to pledge themselves to support officially approved religious leaders and reincarnations, and to denounce the Dalai Lama.

The Government continued its harsh rhetorical campaign against the Dalai Lama and his leadership of a “government-in-exile.” The official press continued to criticize vehemently the “Dalai clique,” and in an attempt to undermine the credibility of his religious authority, repeatedly described the Dalai Lama as a “criminal” determined to split China. Both the central government and local officials often insist that dialog with the Dalai Lama essentially is impossible, and claim that his actions belie his repeated public assurances that he does not advocate independence for Tibet. Nonetheless, the Government asserts that the door to dialog and negotiation is open provided that the Dalai Lama publicly affirms that Tibet is an inseparable part of China. Since 1998 the Government also has required the Dalai Lama to affirm publicly that Taiwan is a province of China. The Government remains suspicious of Tibetan Buddhism in general due to its links to the Dalai Lama; this suspicion also applies to Tibetan Buddhist religious adherents who do not demonstrate explicitly their loyalty to the State.

The Government claims that since 1976 it has contributed sums in excess of $40 million (approximately 300 to 400 million RMB) toward the restoration of tens of thousands of Buddhist sites, which were destroyed before and during the Cultural Revolution. Government funding of restoration efforts ostensibly was done to support the practice of religion, but also was done in part to promote the development of tourism in Tibet. Most recent restoration efforts were funded privately, although a few religious sites also were receiving government support for reconstruction projects at the end of the period covered by this report.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Buddhist monasteries and pro-independence activism are associated closely in Tibet, and the Government has moved to curb the proliferation of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, which it charges are a drain on local resources and a conduit for political infiltration by the Tibetan exile community. The Government states that there are no limits on the number of monks in major monasteries, and that each monastery’s Democratic Management Committee (DMC) decides on its own how many monks the monastery can support. However, these committees are government-controlled, and in practice, the authorities impose strict limits on the number of monks in major monasteries. The Government has the right to disapprove any individual’s application to take up religious orders, although these restrictions are not always enforced.

Although by regulation monks are not permitted to register and formally join a monastery prior to the age of 18, many younger boys in fact continue the tradition of entering monastic life. Young novices, who traditionally served as attendants to older monks while receiving a basic monastic education and awaiting formal ordination, continue to be admitted to some TAR monasteries. However, monasteries require government approval to admit trainee monks, and some monasteries have been unable to secure such approval. In some large monasteries young novices have been expelled in the past for being underage. Because these novices were not regular, registered members of the monasteries, the authorities denied that there was a significant decline in the numbers of monks at such sites. However, there were no reports of such expulsions during the period covered by this report.

Beginning in June 2001, Chinese authorities ordered thousands of monks and nuns to leave the Serthar Tibetan Buddhist Institute located in the Ganze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province (also known as the Larung Gar monastic encampment). The authorities also destroyed the residences of many of the monks and nuns who had been at Serthar. Foreign observers believed that the authorities moved against the Institute because of its size and the influence of its charismatic founder, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok. According to the Tibet Information Network (TIN), the authorities carried out a similar campaign at Yachen Gar in Baiyul county, another major monastic encampment in Sichuan province. The authorities reportedly ordered more than 800 of the 6,000 to 7,000 resident monks and nuns to leave the encampment by mid-October 2001. (see also Section II of the China International Religious Freedom Report for information on these incidents).

The Government continued to oversee the daily operations of major monasteries. The Government, which does not contribute to monasteries’ operational funds, retains management control of the monasteries through the DMC’s and the local religious affairs bureaus. In many areas, regulations restrict leadership of the DMC’s to “patriotic and devoted” monks and nuns and specify that the Government must approve all members of the committees. At some major monasteries, government officials also sit on the committees.

With the advent of DMC responsibility for management of all monastery funds generated by entrance tickets or donated by pilgrims, funds no longer are made available to partially support monks engaged in full time study. Such “scholar monks” now must engage in income-generating activities at least part of the time. Experts are concerned that fewer monks will be qualified to serve as teachers in the future as a result. The erosion of the quality of religious teaching in the TAR continues to be a focus of concern. The quality and availability of high-level religious teachers in the TAR is inadequate, as many now are in exile, and older teachers are not being replaced.

Government officials state that the “patriotic education campaign,” which began in the mid-1990’s and dispatched work teams to conduct intensive mandatory political training sessions for nuns and monks at religious sites, is completed. Officials acknowledge, however, that “patriotic education” for monks and nuns continues on a regular basis at religious sites and that monks and nuns continue to undergo mandatory political training or “patriotic education.” Training sessions are aimed at enforcing compliance with government regulations, and either cowing or weeding out monks and nuns who refuse to adopt the Party line and who remain sympathetic to the Dalai Lama. Sessions are conducted on topics such as relations between Tibetans and Han Chinese, Tibet’s historical status as part of China, and the role of the Dalai Lama in attempting to “split” the country. Monks and nuns often are required to demonstrate their patriotism by signing a declaration agreeing to reject independence for Tibet; to reject Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama; to reject and denounce the Dalai Lama; to recognize the unity of China and Tibet; and not to listen to the Voice of America or Radio Free Asia. Some non-compliant monks and nuns have been expelled from religious sites. Yet others departed “voluntarily” rather than denounce the Dalai Lama. Despite, and in some cases because of, these efforts to control the Buddhist clergy and monasteries, antigovernment sentiment remains strong.

On average, approximately 2,500 Tibetans enter Nepal each year seeking refugee status to escape conditions in Tibet, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR reported that 1,381 Tibetan refugees transited Nepal in 2001; significantly fewer than in previous years. The decline was due in part to the ongoing Maoist insurgency in Nepal. It is difficult for Tibetans to travel to India for religious purposes. Nevertheless, many Tibetans, including monks and nuns, visited India via third countries and returned to the TAR after temporary stays. Tibetans can return from exile to the TAR, although the approval process is cumbersome.

After the Karmapa, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism’s Karma Kargyu school and one of the most influential religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism, secretly left his home monastery and traveled to India in December 1999, the authorities increased efforts to exert control over the process for finding and educating reincarnated lamas. In January 2000, the Government approved the selection of 2-year-old Sonam Phuntsog as the 7th reincarnation of the Reting Rinpoche. However, the Dalai Lama, who normally must approve the selection of important religious figures such as the Reting Rinpoche, did not recognize the choice. Many of the monks at Reting Monastery reportedly did not accept the child as the Reting Rinpoche, and he lives with his family under heavy guard in his residence near the monastery; the authorities tightly controlled access to the area. Another young reincarnate lama, Pawo Rinpoche, who was recognized by the Karmapa in 1994 as the reincarnation of an important Karma Kargyu lineage, and is approximately 8 years of age, has been denied access to his religious tutors, and the authorities reportedly require him to attend a regular Chinese school. The Government continued to insist that Gyaltsen Norbu, the boy it selected in 1995, is the Panchen Lama’s 11th reincarnation rather than Gendun Choekyi Nyima, who was selected by the Dalai Lama. The authorities tightly control all aspects of his life, and he has appeared publicly in Beijing and Tibet only on rare occasions. These public appearances were marked by a heavy security presence. At all other times, the authorities strictly limited access to the boy. The Panchen Lama is Tibetan Buddhism’s second most prominent figure, after the Dalai Lama.

Government officials maintain that possessing or displaying pictures of the Dalai Lama is not illegal. Currently, possession of pictures of the Dalai Lama appears to be on the rise, and many Tibetan Buddhists discreetly display them in private. However, in at least one prefecture, possession of such pictures resulted in arrest during the period covered by this report. A ban on these pictures is enforced sporadically, and Tibetans are cautious about displaying them. Pictures of the Dalai Lama may not be purchased openly in the TAR.

The Government continued to ban pictures of Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama. However, government authorities at both the regional and city levels have had pictures of Gyaltsen Norbu, the “official” Panchen Lama, printed for use in public and private religious displays, although very few photos of him are on display.

Some 1,000 religious figures hold positions in local people’s congresses and committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. However, the Government continues to insist that Communist Party members and senior government employees adhere to the Party’s code of atheism. A 1999 campaign to promote atheism and science in government offices and schools appears to have wound down, although regular political training for government cadres continues to promote atheism. The campaign also was launched in part to stem “the Dalai clique’s reactionary infiltration.” The authorities threatened to terminate the employment of government employees whose children are studying in India, usually in schools run by the Tibetan refugee community, if they did not bring the children back to Tibet. Government officials stated that all Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) officers are members of the Communist Party and that Party members are required to be atheists. However, some lower level RAB officials practice Buddhism.

Repression of religious freedom reached severe levels in Tibet in the summer of 2000. Communist Party officials and government workers (including such groups as teachers and medical workers) were forbidden to visit religious sites or practice religion at home. In some areas, private citizens were not permitted to change prayer flags on their homes, burn incense, participate in religious activities during the Tibetan New Year (Losar), or make the traditional “lingkor” (pilgrimage circuit around the sacred sites of Lhasa). These measures no longer were enforced strictly by the end of 2000. In February 2002, New Year celebrations were more open than those of the previous 2 years. Lhasa’s major monasteries held large, active prayer festivals attended by pilgrims and Lhasa residents, although security reportedly was tight. The Sagadawa Festival in May 2002 was marked by similar lively celebrations and participation by pilgrims and city dwellers alike. However, in the past few years Tibetans have been forbidden to celebrate actively the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6.

Travel restrictions were reported during the period covered by this report. Restrictions on the issuance of passports increased in early 2002. There were many reports of increased difficulty in obtaining internal travel permits for pilgrimages, and many travelers were unable to travel to the holy site of Mt. Kailash during 2001. Pilgrimages to Mt. Kailash have particular religious significance during 2002, and restrictions on internal travel permits, at least to Mt. Kailash, appear to have eased during the spring of 2002. The Government tightly controlled visits by foreign officials to religious sites and official foreign delegations had few opportunities to meet monks and nuns not previously approved by the local authorities.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government strictly controls access to and information about Tibet, making it is difficult to determine accurately the scope of religious freedom violations. Religious practice faced ongoing restrictions in 2001, but overall these restrictions were less harshly enforced than during the previous year. However, the level of repression in Tibet remained high and the Government’s record of respect for religious freedom remained poor during the period covered by this report.

According to the TIN, at least 29 monks and nuns have died while in detention since 1987, of whom at least 17 had been held in Lhasa’s Drapchi Prison. During the period covered by this report, there were additional accounts of prisoner deaths while in detention or soon after release. The TIN reported that a young monk, Kelsang Gyatso, died in August 2001 after a brief period of detention in Lhasa. Kelsang Gyatso was reportedly detained with a group of monks from Qinghai Province, who were attempting to travel to India via Nepal. Ngawang Lochoe (also known as Dondrub Drolma), a 28-year-old nun at Sandrup Dolma Lhakang temple, reportedly died in February 2001 after serving 9 years of a 10-year sentence for participating in “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement”. She died the same day that she was moved to a hospital from Drapchi Prison, reportedly from respiratory and heart failure.

According to statistics from the TIN, as many as 120 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns were detained in China, a majority of whom were imprisoned in the TAR. In May 2002, the Deputy Director of the TAR Prison Administration Bureau stated that there were approximately 110 prisoners in the TAR incarcerated for “endangering state security.” The majority of these persons are monks and nuns. Five of these prisoners subsequently were released. There were reports of imprisonment and abuse or torture of monks and nuns accused of political activism. Prisoners who resisted political reeducation imposed by prison authorities reportedly were beaten severely. Nun Ngawang Sangdrol is reported to suffer from the long-term effects of repeated severe beatings. Her prison sentence was extended for a third time in 1998 to a total of 28 years for taking part in demonstrations in prison. According to credible reports, her health is extremely poor and deteriorating. Government officials assert that she is in good health. Nun Phuntsog Nyidron, who was sentenced in 1989 for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement, also continues to be in poor health. According to credible reports, she has been beaten severely during her incarceration in Drapchi prison. In 2001 her sentence was reduced by 1 year, and her release date is set for March 2005.

The Government continued to control the movements of Gendun Choekyi Nyima, whom the Dalai Lama recognized in 1995 as the 11th Panchen Lama (when he was 6 years old), along with his family. Government officials have claimed that the boy is under government supervision for his own protection and that he attends classes in Tibet as a “normal schoolboy.” The actual location of Gendun Choekyi Nyima and his family remains unknown. All requests from the international community for access to the boy to confirm his whereabouts and his well being have been refused. In October 2000, government officials showed members of a foreign delegation two photographs that purportedly depicted the boy. Although the overwhelming majority of Tibetan Buddhists recognize the boy identified by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama, Tibetan monks have claimed that they were forced to sign statements pledging allegiance to the boy the Government selected. The Communist Party also urged its members to support the “official” Panchen Lama.

Chadrel Rinpoche, the lama who was accused by the Government of betraying state secrets while helping the Dalai Lama choose the incarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama, was released from prison in January 2002, according to officials. While his 6-year sentence was expected to expire in May 2001, officials maintain that his January 2002 release was in accordance with his formal sentence. There are reports that Chadrel Rinpoche is being held under house arrest near Shigatse, but officials have not confirmed his whereabouts. They have stated that Chadrel Rinpoche is studying scriptures in seclusion. Nun Ngawang Choezom was released from prison on June 21, 2002, 9 months before the end of her sentence. She was detained in 1992 for advocating a free Tibet and sentenced to 5 years in prison, but in 1993 her sentence was extended to 11 years after a group of nuns, including Ngawang Choezom, secretly recorded songs about Tibetan independence. After prison protests in 1998, Ngawang Choezom reportedly was beaten severely and placed in solitary confinement. In addition, during the period covered by this report, three other nuns, Tenzin Thubten, Ngawang Choekji, and Gyaltsen Drolkar, were released prior to the expiration of their sentences.

Following the December 1999 flight of the Karmapa, Urgyen Trinley Dorje, to India, authorities restricted access to the Tsurphu Monastery, the seat of the Karmapa, and reportedly increased “patriotic education” activities there. The Karmapa stated that he left because of controls on his movements and the refusal either to allow him to go to India to be trained by his spiritual mentors or to allow his mentors to come to him. Following his flight, the TIN reported that at least two Tsurphu monks were arrested and that the Karmapa’s parents were placed under surveillance. Government officials denied that there were any arrests or that the Karmapa’s parents have faced restrictions of any kind. Nonetheless, in January 2001, the TIN reported that conditions at Tsurpu remain tense, with a permanent police presence and intensified restrictions on monks that appear to be aimed at discouraging them from following their spiritual teacher into exile. The TIN also reported that no new monks are being permitted to enter the monastery.

Since Falun Gong was banned in July 1999, there have been reports of detentions of Falun Gong practitioners in Tibet. The number of practicing Falun Gong practitioners in Tibet is believed to be small.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Most Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism. Although the Christian population in Tibet is extremely small, some ethnic Tibetan converts reportedly are subject to social pressure and some reportedly have been disinherited by Buddhist family members.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu made a concerted effort to encourage greater religious freedom in Tibet. In regular exchanges with the Government, including with religious affairs officials, U.S. diplomatic personnel consistently urged both central government and local authorities to respect religious freedom in Tibet. Embassy officials protested and sought further information on cases whenever there were credible reports of religious persecution or discrimination. On numerous occasions, the U.S. Embassy, including the Ambassador and other senior officers, raised the cases of religious prisoners and reports of religious persecution with government officials. U.S. diplomatic personnel stationed in the country also regularly traveled to Tibet to monitor conditions, including the status of religious freedom. U.S. officials maintain contacts with a wide spectrum of religious figures, and the U.S. Department of State’s nongovernmental contacts include experts on religion in Tibet and religious groups in the United States.

In July 2001, the Government agreed to resume the official U.S.-China bilateral human rights dialog, which had been suspended since 1999. The dialog was held in October 2001 and religious freedom was an agenda item.

In October 2001, the Secretary of State designated China a country of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.

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