State Department International Religious Freedom Report: 2004

TIBET

The United States recognizes the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan autonomous counties and prefectures in other provinces to be a part of the People’s Republic of China. The Department of State follows these designations in its reporting. The preservation and development of the Tibetan people’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage and the protection of their 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 Government’s May White Paper on “Regional Ethnic Autonomy in Tibet” states, “Tibetans fully enjoy the freedom of religious belief.” However, the Government maintains tight controls on religious practices and places of worship in Tibetan areas of China. Although the authorities permit many traditional religious practices and public manifestations of belief, they promptly and forcibly suppress activities they view as vehicles for political dissent or advocacy of Tibetan independence, such as religious activities venerating the Dalai Lama, (which the Chinese Government describes as “splittist”).

Overall, the level of repression in Tibetan areas remained high and the Government’s record of respect for religious freedom remained poor during the period covered by this report; however, the atmosphere for religious freedom varied from region to region. Conditions were generally more relaxed in Tibetan autonomous areas outside the TAR, with the exception of parts of Sichuan’s Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Envoys of the Dalai Lama made visits to China for discussions with Chinese officials in 2002 and 2003, and they were negotiating a third set of visits at the end of the period covered by this report. Authorities released long-serving Tibetan monks and nuns from TAR Prison (also known as Drapchi Prison) in September 2003, February, and April. However, in October 2003, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported the death of a young monk serving a sentence in Sichuan Province, allegedly due to maltreatment received in prison. Numerous Buddhist leaders, such as Gendun Choekyi Nyima, Tenzin Deleg, and Sonam Phuntsog, remain in detention or prison, and key figures such as the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa Lama remain in exile. The Government strictly controls access to and information about Tibetan areas, particularly the TAR, rendering it difficult to determine accurately the scope of religious freedom violations. The “patriotic education” campaign begun in the mid-1990s officially concluded in 2000, but coercive activities to ensure the political reliability of monks and nuns continued. Core requirements of “patriotic education,” such as the renunciation of the Dalai Lama and the acceptance of Tibet as a part of China, continued to engender resentment on the part of Tibetan Buddhists. Dozens of monks and nuns continued to serve prison terms for their resistance to “patriotic education.”

While there is some friction between Tibetan Buddhists and the growing Muslim Hui population in cities of the Tibetan areas, it is attributable more to economic competition and cultural differences than to religious differences. The Christian population in the TAR is extremely small. There are some reports that converts to Christianity have encountered societal pressure.

The U.S. Government continued to encourage greater religious freedom in Tibetan areas by urging the central Government and local authorities to respect religious freedom and preserve religious traditions. The U.S. Government protested credible reports of religious persecution and discrimination, discussed specific cases with the authorities, and requested further information about specific incidents.

Section I. Religious Demography

The Tibetan areas of China have a total land area of 871,649 square miles. According to the 2000 census, the Tibetan population of those areas is 5,354,540. Most Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism and the traditional Tibetan Bon religion to some degree. This includes many Tibetans who are government officials. Other residents of Tibetan areas include Han Chinese, who practice Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and traditional folk religions; Hui Muslims; Tibetan Muslims; and Christians. There are 4 mosques in the TAR with approximately 3,000 Muslim adherents, as well as a Catholic church with 700 parishioners, which is located in the traditionally Catholic community of Yanjing in the eastern TAR. While officials state that there is no Falun Gong activity in the TAR, reports indicate small numbers of practitioners among the Han Chinese population.

The Government’s May White Paper states that the TAR has over 46,000 Buddhist monks and nuns and more than 1,700 venues for Tibetan Buddhist activities. Officials have cited almost identical figures since 1996, although the numbers of monks and nuns dropped 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.” These numbers represent only the TAR, where the number of monks and nuns is very strictly controlled; approximately 60,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns live in Tibetan areas outside the TAR, according to informed estimates.

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, and the Government’s May White Paper on “Regional Ethnic Autonomy in Tibet” affirms, “Tibetans fully enjoy the freedom of religious belief.” 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 remains suspicious of Tibetan Buddhism in general and its links to the Dalai Lama, and it maintains tight controls on religious practices and places of worship in Tibetan areas. 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. Officials confirm that monks and nuns continue to undergo political training known as “patriotic education” on a regular basis at their religious sites. Political training has become a routine, and officially mandatory, feature of monastic life. However, the form, content, and frequency of such training appear to vary widely from monastery to monastery.

In 2002 and 2003, the Government extended invitations to emissaries of the Dalai Lama to visit Tibetan and other areas of China. In September 2002, Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, the Dalai Lama’s representatives to the United States and Europe respectively, traveled to Beijing, Lhasa, and other cities and met with a number of government officials. These were the first formal contacts between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Government since 1993. They made a second trip to China in June 2003 to meet with Chinese officials and visited Shanghai, Beijing, and Tibetan areas in Yunnan Province. Additionally, Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, visited in July 2002, making his first trip to the TAR since leaving in 1959. The Government asserted that the door to dialogue and negotiation was open, provided that the Dalai Lama publicly affirms that Tibet and Taiwan are inseparable parts of China. Representatives of the Tibetan government-in-exile have announced that they were negotiating with the Chinese Government for the Dalai Lama’s representatives to visit China later in 2004.

In its May White Paper, the Government claimed that it has contributed approximately $40 million (300 million RMB) to renovate and open over 1,400 monasteries and to repair cultural relics, many of which were destroyed before and during the Cultural Revolution. According to the document, the Government allocated $6.7 million (RMB 55 million) and large quantities of gold and silver for the first phase of renovation of Lhasa’s Potala Palace from 1989 to 1994. Since 2001 it claims to have allocated $40 million (RMB 330 million) for the second phase of the renovation of the Potala Palace, as well as the Norbulingka Palace (another former residence of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa) and Sakya Monastery (the seat of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism in rural southern TAR). Despite these and other efforts, many monasteries destroyed during the Cultural Revolution were never rebuilt or repaired, and others remain only partially repaired. Government funding of restoration efforts was ostensibly done to support the practice of religion, but also was done in part to promote the development of tourism in Tibetan areas. 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

Government officials closely associate Buddhist monasteries with pro-independence activism in Tibetan areas of China. In many places, particularly in the TAR, the Government continued to discourage the proliferation of monasteries, which it contended were 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 independently how many monks the monastery can support. However, many of these committees are government-controlled, and in practice the Government imposed strict limits on the number of monks in many major monasteries, particularly in the TAR. The Government had the right to disapprove any individual’s application to take up religious orders; however, the Government did not necessarily exercise this right in practice during the period covered by this report. Authorities have curtailed the traditional practice of sending young boys to monasteries for religious training by means of regulations that forbid monasteries from accepting individuals under the age of 18. Nevertheless, some monasteries continued to admit younger boys, often delaying their formal registration until the age of 18.

The Government continued to oversee the daily operations of major monasteries. The Government, which did not contribute to the monasteries’ operating funds, retained management control of monasteries through the DMCs and local religious affairs bureaus. Regulations restricted leadership of many DMCs to “patriotic and devoted” monks and nuns and specified that the Government must approve all members of the committees. At some monasteries, government officials also sat on the committees.

In recent years, DMCs at several large monasteries began to use funds generated by the sales of entrance tickets or donated by pilgrims for purposes other than the support of monks engaged in full-time religious study. As a result, some “scholar monks” who formerly had been fully supported had to engage in income-generating activities. Some experts are concerned that, as a result, fewer monks will be qualified to serve as teachers in the future. The erosion of the quality of religious teaching in the TAR and other Tibetan areas continued to be a focus of concern. The quality and availability of high-level religious teachers in the TAR and other Tibetan areas was inadequate; many teachers were in exile, older teachers were not being replaced, and those remaining in Tibetan areas outside the TAR had difficulty securing permission to teach in the TAR.

Government officials have stated that the “patriotic education” campaign, which began in 1996 and often consisted of intensive, weeks-long sessions conducted by outside work teams, ended in 2000. However, officials state openly that monks and nuns continue to undergo political education, likewise known as “patriotic education,” on a regular basis (i.e. classes held four times per year) at their religious sites. Some religious leaders also hold local political positions. Since primary responsibility for conducting political education has shifted from government officials to monastery leaders, the form, content, and frequency of training at each monastery appears to have varied widely. However conducting such training remains a requirement and has become a routine part of monastic management.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that 2,248 Tibetans presented themselves at the UNHCR office in Nepal during 2003, of whom 1,815 were found to be “of concern” and provided with basic assistance; the remaining 433 departed for India without being registered or processed by the UNHCR. In September 2003, TAR Public Security Bureau officials told a visiting foreign delegation that 1,000 residents of the TAR receive passports each year, and that residents make 2,000-3,000 trips abroad each year. However, some Tibetans, particularly those from rural areas, continued to report difficulties in obtaining passports. Due in part to such difficulties and in part to the difficulty many Chinese citizens of Tibetan ethnicity encountered obtaining entry visas for India, it was difficult for Tibetans to travel to India for religious purposes. During the period covered by this report, a group of 18 Tibetans forcibly repatriated to China from Nepal in May 2003 under pressure from Chinese officials reportedly suffered torture, including electric shocks, exposure to cold, and severe beatings, and were forced to perform heavy physical labor. Their family members were pressured for bribes to secure their release. Nevertheless, many Tibetans, including monks and nuns, visited India via third countries and returned to China after temporary stays. Some returned exiles reported that authorities pressured them not to discuss sensitive political issues.

Following the 1999 flight to India of the Karmapa Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhism’s Karma Kagyu school and one of the most influential religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism, authorities restricted access to Tsurphu Monastery, the seat of the Karmapa Lama, and intensified “patriotic education” activities there. The Karmapa Lama stated that he decided to flee because of the Government’s controls on his movements and its refusal either to allow him to go to India to be trained by his spiritual mentors or to allow his teachers to come to him. Visitors to Tsurphu during the period covered by this report noted that the population of monks remains small and the atmosphere remains subdued.

After the Karmapa Lama’s departure, the authorities expanded their efforts to control the process of identifying and educating reincarnated lamas. The Government approved the seventh reincarnation of Reting Rinpoche in 2000, but many of the monks at Reting Monastery reportedly did not accept the child as Reting Rinpoche because the Dalai Lama did not recognize his selection. Another young reincarnate lama, Pawo Rinpoche, who was recognized by the Karmapa Lama in 1994, lived under strict government supervision at Nenang Monastery. Foreign delegations have been refused permission to visit Nenang Monastery.

Government officials maintained that possessing or displaying pictures of the Dalai Lama is not illegal. However, authorities appeared to view possession of such photos as sufficient evidence of separatist sentiment when detaining individuals on political charges. Pictures of the Dalai Lama were not openly displayed in major monasteries and could not be purchased openly in the TAR. Diplomatic observers saw pictures of a number of Tibetan religious figures, including the Dalai Lama, openly displayed in Tibetan areas outside the TAR. However, in the months following an August 2003 incident in which unknown individuals hung the banned Tibetan national flag from a radio tower, private displays of Dalai Lama pictures were confiscated in urban areas of two Sichuan counties. The Government also continued to ban pictures of Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama. Photos of the “official” Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu, are not publicly displayed in most places, most likely because very few Tibetans recognize him as the Panchen Lama.

Approximately 615 Tibetan Buddhist religious figures hold positions in local People’s Congresses and committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. However, the Government continued to insist that Communist Party members and senior employees adhere to the Party’s code of atheism, and routine political training for cadres continued to promote atheism. Government officials confirmed that some Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) officers are members of the Communist Party and that religious belief is incompatible with Party membership. However, some lower level RAB officials practice Buddhism.

Authorities prohibit Tibetans from actively celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6. Celebrations of other major religious festivals such as Monlam Chenmo and the Drepung Shodon have been marked by a somewhat more open atmosphere and diminished security presence than in the past, but teachers and students at Tibet University were prohibited from actively celebrating the Saga Dawa festival in 2004.

Travel restrictions for foreign visitors to and within the TAR were reported during the period covered by this report. 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.

In July 2003, authorities reportedly closed the Ngaba Kirti Monastic School in Ngaba Prefecture, Sichuan Province, and summoned its chief patron, Soepa Nagur, to Sichuan’s capital city Chengdu, according to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD). Funded in 1994 with private funds to provide traditional Tibetan and monastic education to rural residents, the school attracted the attention of local authorities in 1998, who forced the school to change its name, include secular subjects in its curriculum, and finally merge with another nearby institution.

In January, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog, the charismatic founder of the Serthar Tibetan Buddhist Institute (also known as Larung Gar) in Sichuan Province’s Kardze Prefecture, died while receiving medical treatment in the provincial capital Chengdu. Founded in 1980, the Institute grew to house 10,000 monks and nuns before authorities moved to destroy structures and expel students from the site in 2001, ultimately reducing the population to approximately 4,000. After a year’s absence officially attributed to medical treatment, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog returned to the Institute in July 2002. As recently as May 2003, conflicts over attempts to rebuild some structures resulted in arrests and the enforced closure of the Institute to outsiders. After the abbot’s death, Sichuan authorities forbade the province’s Buddhist monks from attending his funeral; nevertheless, eyewitnesses reported that tens of thousands of Tibetan and Han Chinese monks defied the order to pay their respects.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government strictly controls access to and information about Tibetan areas, particularly the TAR, and it is difficult to determine accurately the scope of religious freedom violations. While the atmosphere for lay religious practice is less restrictive than in the recent past, the level of repression in Tibetan areas remained high, and the Government’s record of respect for religious freedom remained poor during the period covered by this report.

In October 2003, Tibetan monk Nyima Dragpa of Dawu County in Sichuan Province’s Kardze Prefecture died while serving a 9-year sentence for state subversion. Based on a letter the monk allegedly wrote before his death, NGO and foreign media observers attributed his death to torture suffered in prison. In November 2002, Tibetan Buddhist monk Lobsang Dhargyal reportedly died of a brain hemorrhage in a “reform through labor” camp in Qinghai Province. TCHRD attributed the monk’s death to torture and maltreatment while in detention. There has been no official public confirmation of or investigation into Lobsang Dhargyal’s death.

The Panchen Lama is Tibetan Buddhism’s second most prominent figure, after the Dalai Lama. The Government continued to insist that Gyaltsen Norbu, the boy it selected in 1995, is the Panchen Lama’s 11th reincarnation. The Government continued to refuse to allow access to Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama in 1995 as the 11th Panchen Lama (when he was 6 years old), and his whereabouts are unknown. Government officials have claimed that the boy is under government supervision, at an undisclosed location, for his own protection and attends classes as a “normal schoolboy.” All requests from the international community for access to the boy to confirm his well-being have been refused. While 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. Gyaltsen Norbu made his second highly orchestrated visit to Tibetan areas in August 2003, and his public appearances were marked by a heavy security presence.

Chadrel Rinpoche, the lama 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. There are reports that Chadrel Rinpoche is being held under house arrest near Lhasa, but officials have not confirmed his whereabouts and refused requests from the international community to meet with him. They continue to state that Chadrel Rinpoche is studying scriptures in seclusion. In August 2003, TCHRD reported that Champa Chung, 56-year-old former assistant of Chadrel Rinpoche, remained in custody after the expiration of his original 4-year prison term in 1999.

On February 12, police arrested Choeden Rinzen, a monk at Lhasa’s Ganden Monastery, for possessing a Tibetan national flag and a picture of the Dalai Lama, according to Radio Free Asia. Two friends of Choeden Rinzen reportedly were arrested with him but later released.

According to statistics published in February by the Tibet Information Network (TIN), approximately 90 of the 136 male Tibetans documented by TIN as current political prisoners are monks, former monks, or reincarnate lamas, and 4 of the 6 female prisoners are nuns or former nuns. In April TAR justice and prison officials stated that approximately 3 percent of the 2,500 judicially sentenced inmates incarcerated in the TAR’s three formally designated prisons were charged with “endangering state security.” The majority of those approximately 75 prisoners are monks and nuns. As in previous years, there were credible reports of imprisonment and abuse and torture of monks and nuns accused of political activism, and of prisoners who were beaten because they resisted political re-education imposed by prison authorities.

Although Tibetan Buddhists in Tibetan areas outside of the TAR enjoy relatively greater freedom of worship than their coreligionists within the TAR, religious expression by Tibetan Buddhists outside the TAR has also at times resulted in detention and arrest. Prominent religious leader Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, arrested for his alleged connection with a series of bombings in April 2002, remains imprisoned under a death sentence with a 2-year reprieve. Tenzin Deleg’s former associate, Lobsang Dondrub, was executed on January 26, 2003, for his part in the alleged bombings. Lobsang Dondrub’s execution occurred in contravention of Chinese government assurances that both individuals would be afforded full due process, and that the national-level Supreme People’s Court would review their sentences. In response to repeated inquiries, Chinese officials have confirmed to U.S. and E.U. officials that the reprieve of Tenzin Deleg’s death sentence will run for 2 years from the date the judgment became final. The Chinese Government has further clarified to U.S. officials that the judgment became final on January 26, 2003, when Tenzin Deleg lost his appeal before the Sichuan Higher People’s Court.

In August 2003, five monks and an unidentified lay artist received sentences of 1 to 12 years’ imprisonment for alleged separatist activities, including painting a Tibetan national flag, possessing pictures of the Dalai Lama, and distributing materials calling for Tibetan independence. The monks–Zoepa, Tsogphel, Sherab Dargye, Oezer, and Migyur–were all from Khangmar Monastery in Ngaba Prefecture, Sichuan Province.

Many other religious figures remained imprisoned during the period covered by this report, including Sonam Phuntsog, a Buddhist teacher in Kardze County, Sichuan Province, arrested in 1999 after leading a protest; Lhasa orphanage owners Jigme Tenzin and Nyima Choedron, convicted in 2002 of “espionage and endangering state security”; and approximately 10 persons detained in October 2002 in Kardze Town, Sichuan Province, in connection with long-life ceremonies for the Dalai Lama sponsored by foreign Tibetan Buddhists.

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

There were some positive developments regarding prisoners. On April 18, authorities reportedly released Tibetan Buddhist monk Ngawang Oezer from TAR Prison upon completion of a 15-year sentence for participating in pro-independence activities at Drepung Monastery. In August 2003, authorities had announced that Ngawang Oezer’s sentence had been reduced by 2 years.

On February 24, authorities released Tibetan Buddhist nun Phuntsog Nyidrol from Lhasa’s TAR Prison approximately 1 year before her sentence was due to expire. She had received a 9-year sentence for taking part in a peaceful demonstration in support of the Dalai Lama in 1989. Authorities extended her sentence to 17 years after she and other nuns recorded songs about their devotion to Tibet and the Dalai Lama in 1993 but reduced that sentence by 1 year in 2001.

In 2003, Tsurphu Monastery monks Panam and Thubten, arrested in 2002 on suspicion of assisting in the Karmapa Lama’s flight to India, were released from prison and have returned to their monastery. In September 2003, authorities reportedly released long-serving Tibetan nun Lhamo Namdrol from prison upon conclusion of her 12-year sentence.

In February Nyima Choedron, former nun and co-director of the Gyatso Children’s home, received a 1-year sentence reduction, according to TAR officials. In August 2003, the Government announced that the monk Jamphel Jangchub, imprisoned in Lhasa’s TAR Prison for joining a pro-independence group in Drepung Monastery in the 1980s, received a sentence reduction of 3 years.

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 Government’s refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Most Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism. The Christian population in Tibetan areas of China is extremely small. There are some reports that converts to Christianity have encountered societal pressure, and some converts reportedly have been disinherited by their families.

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 Tibetan areas, using both focused external pressure regarding abuses and support for positive trends within the country. 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 Tibetan areas.

The Ambassador and the Consul General have each raised the case of Tenzin Deleg during meetings with local officials on several occasions. Each time, U.S. officials urged local authorities to abide by Chinese government commitments that the imprisoned religious leader receive due process under the law. Senior State Department officers traveled to Lhasa in September 2003 for discussions with TAR authorities and with monks and practitioners at important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.

Embassy and consulate officials protested and sought further information on cases whenever there were credible reports of religious persecution or discrimination. In January, following reports that Tibetans forcibly repatriated to China from Nepal in May 2003 had been subject to imprisonment and torture, the Ambassador lodged a protest in Beijing and Consulate Chengdu made a formal, written inquiry to the TAR authorities.

U.S. diplomatic personnel stationed in the country maintain contacts with a wide range of religious leaders and practitioners in the Tibetan areas, and they traveled to the TAR and other Tibetan areas 13 times during the period covered by this report to monitor the status of religious freedom.

Development and exchange programs administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of State aim to strengthen Tibetan communities in China and preserve their environment and culture heritage. Both are inextricably linked to Tibet’s Buddhist religious tradition. The U.S. Consulate in Chengdu has also promoted religious dialogue through its exchange visitor program, which financed the travel of two prominent scholars of traditional Tibetan culture and religion to the U.S.

 

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