State Department International Religious Freedom Report: 2005

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 February White Paper on “Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities in China” states, “Organs of self-government in autonomous areas, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and relevant laws, respect and guarantee the freedom of religious belief of ethnic minorities, and safeguard all legal and normal religious activities of people of ethnic minorities;” however, the Government maintained tight controls on religious practices and places of worship in Tibetan areas. Although the authorities permitted many traditional religious practices and public manifestations of belief, they promptly and forcibly suppressed activities they viewed as vehicles for political dissent or advocacy of Tibetan independence, such as religious activities venerating the Dalai Lama (which the Chinese Government described 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, 2003 and 2004. Although in the past there were reports of the deaths of monks and nuns due to maltreatment in prison, there were no known reports during this period; however, Buddhist leaders such as Gendun Choekyi Nyima and Tenzin Deleg remained in detention or prison, and the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism such as the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa Lama remained in exile. Dozens of monks and nuns continued to serve prison terms for their resistance to “patriotic education.” The Government refused free access to Tibetan areas for international observers, tightly controlled observers who were granted access, and tightly controlled publication of information about conditions in Tibet. These restrictions made it impossible to determine accurately the scope of religious freedom violations.

While there was some friction between Tibetan Buddhists and the growing Muslim Hui population in cities of the Tibetan areas, it was attributable more to economic competition and cultural differences than to religious tensions. The Christian population in the TAR was extremely small. Some converts to Christianity may 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 an area of 871,649 square miles. According to the 2000 census, the Tibetan population of those areas was 5,354,540. Most Tibetans practiced Tibetan Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, the traditional Tibetan Bon religion. This held true for many Tibetan government officials and Communist Party members. Bon includes beliefs and ceremonies that practitioners believe predate the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet in the 7th century. 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 560 parishioners, which is located in the traditionally Catholic community of Yanjing in the eastern TAR. There may be small numbers of Falun Gong practitioners among the Han Chinese population.

The Government’s February White Paper stated that, by the end of 2003, there were 1,700 sites in the TAR for Buddhists to conduct religious activities, and some 46,000 resident monks and nuns. 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 was very strictly controlled. According to official figures, Sichuan Province’s Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is home to 515 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and 38,000 monks and nuns. Informed observers estimate that a total of 60,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns live in Tibetan areas outside the TAR.

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 sought 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 remained wary of Tibetan Buddhism in general and its links to the Dalai Lama, and it maintained tight controls on religious practices and places of worship in Tibetan areas. Although the authorities permitted many traditional religious practices and public manifestations of belief, they promptly and forcibly suppressed any activities, which they viewed as vehicles for political dissent. This included religious activities that officials perceived as supporting the Dalai Lama or Tibetan independence.

On March 1, 2005, the State Council introduced new religious affairs regulations that superseded the Government’s 1994 regulations on the management of religious sites. The regulations’ preamble stated that the provisions aim to protect freedom of religious belief, maintain harmony between different religions and society, and regulate religious affairs throughout the country. On January 17, 2005, according to a Chinese Government website, TAR Vice Chairman Jagra Lobsang Tenzin told a meeting of TAR officials that the regulations provided “a legal weapon to resist foreign forces’ taking advantage of religion to infiltrate our country.”

In September 2004, the Government extended invitations to emissaries of the Dalai Lama to visit Tibetan and other areas of China. The delegation visited Guangdong, Beijing, and Tibetan areas of western Sichuan Province. This marked the third visit of emissaries of the Dalai Lama to China in as many years. On previous visits in 2002 and 2003, Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy, and Kelsang Gyaltsen, the Dalai Lama’s Envoy, had traveled to Beijing, Lhasa, Shanghai, and Tibetan areas of Yunnan Province. Additionally, Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, visited in 2002, making his first trip to the TAR since leaving in 1959 and subsequently made additional private visits to China. The Government asserted that the door to dialogue and negotiation was open, provided that the Dalai Lama publicly affirmed that Tibet and Taiwan were inseparable parts of China.

Since the establishment of the TAR in 1965, the Government asserted it has spent $36 million (RMB 300 million) for restoration of the TAR’s Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, many of which were destroyed before and during the Cultural Revolution. In 2002, the Government undertook a project to restore the TAR’s three most prominent cultural sites, the Potala Palace, the Norbulingka (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 remained only partially repaired. The Government stated that funding restoration efforts was done to support the practice of religion, but it 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 associated Buddhist monasteries with pro-independence activism in Tibetan areas of China. Spiritual leaders encountered difficulty re-establishing historical monasteries due to lack of funds, general limitations on monastic education, and denials of government permission to build and operate religious institutions, which officials in some areas contended were a drain on local resources and a conduit for political infiltration by the Tibetan exile community. The Government stated that there were no limits on the number of monks in major monasteries, and that each monastery’s Democratic Management Committee (DMC) decided independently how many monks the monastery could support. Many of these committees were government-controlled, and, in practice, the Government imposed strict limits on the number of monks in 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 year. Authorities curtailed the traditional practice of sending young boys to monasteries for religious training by means of regulations that forbade 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 were members of the committees.

The quality and availability of high-level religious teachers in the TAR and other Tibetan areas remained 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. 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 had formerly been fully supported had to engage in income-generating activities. Some experts were concerned that, as a result, fewer monks would be qualified to serve as teachers in the future. While local government officials’ attempts to attract tourists to religious sites provided some monasteries with extra income, they also deflected time and energy from religious instruction. There were reports of disagreements between monastic leaders and government officials over visitors, vehicle traffic, and culturally inappropriate construction near monastic sites. In July 2004, authorities permitted resumption of the Geshe Lharampa examinations, the highest religious examination in the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, at Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple for the first time in 16 years.

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 stated openly that monks and nuns undergo political education, also known as “patriotic education,” on a regular basis, generally less than four times a year, but occasionally more frequently, at their religious sites. Since primary responsibility for conducting political education shifted from government officials to monastery leaders, the form, content, and frequency of training at each monastery appeared to vary widely; however, conducting such training remained a requirement and had become a routine part of monastic management.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that 2,427 Tibetan new arrivals approached UNHCR in Nepal during 2004, of whom 2,338 were found to be “of concern” and of whom 2,318 were provided with basic assistance; the remaining 89 Tibetan new arrivals departed for India without being registered or processed by UNHCR. Press reports indicate that about 400 TAR residents traveled abroad in 2004. Many Tibetans, particularly those from rural areas, continued to report difficulties obtaining passports. The application process was not transparent, and residents of different Tibetan areas reported obstacles ranging from bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption to denials based on the applicant’s political activities or beliefs. Police in China have stated that passport regulations permit them to deny passports to those whose travel will “harm the national security and national interests.”

Due in part to the difficulties faced by many Tibetans in obtaining passports, 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. For example, in January 2005, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that authorities revoked permission for a group of Tibetans from Kardze prefecture to travel to India and Nepal on pilgrimage. In 2003, Tibetans forcibly repatriated to China from Nepal reportedly suffered torture, and their family members pressured by officials 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.

The Karmapa Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhism’s Karma Kagyu sect and one of the most influential religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism, remained in exile following his 1999 flight to India. The Karmapa Lama stated that he fled 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 Monastery, the seat of the Karmapa Lama, noted that the population of monks remained small and the atmosphere was subdued.

The Government routinely asserted control over the process of identifying and educating reincarnated lamas. For example, Government authorities closely supervised the current Reting Rinpoche, who is seven years old, and his education differed significantly from that of his predecessors.

The Government also strictly restricted contacts between reincarnate lamas and the outside world. For example, young incarnate lama Pawo Rinpoche, who was recognized by the Karmapa Lama in 1994, lived under government supervision at Nenang Monastery. Foreign delegations have been refused permission to visit him.

Government officials maintained that possessing or displaying pictures of the Dalai Lama was not illegal. Nevertheless, authorities appeared to view possession of such photos as 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. In August 2004, TAR Deputy Chairman Wu Jilie told visiting Western journalists that not displaying the Dalai Lama’s photo was the voluntary choice of most TAR residents. In April, the Tibetan government-in-exile reported that police raided the homes of Tibetans living near the TAR border town of Dram and confiscated pictures and speeches of the Dalai Lama. 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, were not publicly displayed in most places, most likely because most Tibetans refuse to recognize him as the Panchen Lama.

Approximately 615 Tibetan Buddhist religious figures held positions in local People’s Congresses and committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Nevertheless, 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 were members of the Communist Party and that religious belief was incompatible with Party membership. This prohibition notwithstanding, some lower level RAB officials practiced Buddhism.

Security was intensified during the Dalai Lama’s birthday, sensitive anniversaries, and festival days in the TAR and in some other Tibetan areas. The prohibition on celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6 continued. In August 2004, some Lhasa residents privately expressed unhappiness with city authorities’ plans to fix the date of the Drepung Shodon festival, which traditionally varied according to the Tibetan lunar calendar, to promote tourism. Residents were reportedly permitted to carry out observances on the traditional date a week later.

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 in the TAR, and official foreign delegations had few opportunities to meet monks and nuns in Tibetan areas that were not previously approved by the local authorities.

Following the death of charismatic leader Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog in January 2004, the Serthar Buddhist Study Institute in Western Sichuan’s Serthar County remained under tight government control. Officials restricted access and barred all foreigners from entering the compound. Authorities demolished students’ makeshift shelters and refused requests to build new structures at the site. Officials also pressured monastic leaders to postpone the search for Jigme Phuntsog’s reincarnation.

In July 2004, Tibetan and Chinese intellectuals succeeded in their petition drive to prevent Han Chinese sportsman Zhang Jian from swimming across Lake Namtso in the TAR, which many Tibetan Buddhists hold to be sacred.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government strictly controlled access to and information about Tibetan areas, particularly the TAR, and it was difficult to determine accurately the scope of religious freedom violations. While the atmosphere for lay religious practice was 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.

During the period covered by this report, authorities did not respond to international calls for an inquiry into the case of Nyima Dragpa. A monk from Nyitso Monastery in Sichuan’s Kardze Prefecture, Nyima Dragpa died in custody in October 2003, allegedly from injuries sustained during severe beatings.

The Panchen Lama is Tibetan Buddhism’s second most prominent figure, after the Dalai Lama. The Government continued to insist that Gyaltsen Norbu, 15, the boy it selected in 1995, was the Panchen Lama’s 11th reincarnation. The Government continued to refuse to allow access to Gendun Choekyi Nyima, 16, the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama in 1995 as the 11th Panchen Lama (when he was 6 years old), and his whereabouts were 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.

Gyaltsen Norbu traveled June 12-28, 2005, to Sichuan, where he attended religious observances and met with officials. In November 2004, the Associated Press reported that Communist officials met with Buddhist leaders in Qinghai Province and warned that the Buddhist leaders would be punished if they failed to win greater support for Beijing’s policies toward the exiled Dalai Lama and greater acceptance among their followers for Gyaltsen Norbu. In September 2004, as well as in February and March 2005, the Chinese government made efforts to bolster the legitimacy of the boy by publicizing a meeting with President Hu Jintao, arranging an interview with the South China Morning Post, and releasing statements in which the boy both praised the Communist Party and criticized China’s weapons expenditures. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of Tibetan Buddhists continued to recognize Gendun Choekyi Nyima as the Panchen Lama.

Officials still have not confirmed the whereabouts of lama Chadrel Rinpoche, rumored to be held under house arrest, and refused requests from the international community to meet with him. The lama had been imprisoned previously for allegedly betraying state secrets while helping the Dalai Lama choose the incarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama. In August 2003, the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (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.

In February 2004, police in Lhasa arrested Choeden Rinzen, a monk, for possessing a Tibetan national flag and a picture of the Dalai Lama, according to Radio Free Asia.

According to statistics published in February by the Tibet Information Network (TIN), between 130 and 135 Tibetans were imprisoned on political grounds, approximately two-thirds of who are monks or nuns. Approximately 55 political prisoners remained in TAR Prison (also known as Drapchi Prison) in Lhasa, most serving sentences on the charge of “counterrevolution,” which was dropped from the Criminal Law in 1997. Chinese authorities have stated that acts previously prosecuted as counterrevolutionary crimes continue to be considered crimes under state security laws. TIN’s analysis indicated that the majority of Tibetan political prisoners were incarcerated in Lhasa and western Sichuan Province. The overall number of political prisoners in Tibetan areas dropped slightly compared to 2004, according to TIN, but rose in Tibetan autonomous areas of Sichuan Province in connection with several high-profile cases. Prison authorities continued to subject imprisoned monks and nuns to torture. In one interview, a nun reported that prison authorities forced her and other inmates to stand on flooded prison floors in winter.

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. On January 26, authorities commuted prominent religious leader Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche’s two-year suspended death sentence to life in prison. Police arrested the leader in April 2002 for his alleged connection with a series of bombings. Authorities executed Tenzin Deleg’s former associate, Lobsang Dondrub, on January 26, 2003, for his alleged participation. Lobsang Dondrub’s execution occurred despite Chinese Government assurances that they would afford both individuals full due process, and that the national-level Supreme People’s Court would review their sentences.

In 2003, five monks and an unidentified lay artist, all from Ngaba Prefecture in Sichuan Province, 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.

In September 2004, RFA reported that authorities in Sichuan’s Kardze Prefecture sentenced Tibetan Buddhist monks Chogri and Topden and layman Lobsang Tsering to 3-year jail terms for putting up pro-independence posters. The three were reportedly among a group of 60 individuals detained on July 27 at a ceremony at Chogri Monastery in Draggo County, Kardze. RFA claimed that police beat some of those detained. It was believed that the other 57 individuals initially detained had been released by the end of 2004.

In October 2004, RFA reported that police in Qinghai’s Golog Prefecture shot and killed Tibetan Buddhist religious leader Shetsul after he and other monks demanded that the police pay for medical treatment for injuries suffered while in custody.

In January 2005, the organization Guchusum reported that authorities arrested Phuntsok Tsering, the chant master of Magar Dhargyeling monastery in Lhatse County, TAR, in December 2004 for possessing a portrait of the Dalai Lama and writings on Tibetan nationalism.

In February 2005, RFA reported that authorities had sentenced five Tibetan monks from Dakar Treldzong Monastery in Tsolho Prefecture, Qinghai — Tashi Gyaltsen, Tsultrim Phelgyal, Tsesum Samten, Jhamphel Gyatso, and Lobsang Thargyal — to sentences of between 2 and 3 years. Police reportedly arrested the monks in January for publishing politically sensitive poems in a monastery newsletter.

In May 2005, TCHRD reported that authorities sentenced monks Kunchog Tenpa and Tsundue Gyamtso of Taktsang Lhamo Kirti Monastery in Dzoege County, Ngaba Prefecture, Sichuan Province, to three years’ imprisonment. Police arrested the monks in January 2003 for posting pro-independence posters. In July 2003, authorities closed Kirti Monastic School, which is affiliated with Taktsang Lhamo Kirti Monastery, and summoned its chief patron, Soepa Nagur, to Sichuan’s capital city Chengdu. Soepa Nagur’s current whereabouts are unknown.

In May 2005, TCHRD reported that authorities sentenced two monks from Sichuan’s Kardze Prefecture — Lobsang Khedrub and Gyalpo — to 11-year prison terms. Police reportedly arrested the monks in January and February 2004 for displaying the banned Tibetan national flag.

Other religious figures remained imprisoned during the period covered by this report, including Lhasa orphanage owners Jigme Tenzin and Nyima Choedron, convicted in 2002 of “espionage and endangering state security,” Jigme Gyatso, a Ganden Monastery monk serving a 15-year sentence for establishing a pro-independence group, and Ngawang Phuljung, serving a 19-year sentence for leading a group of 10 monks from Drepung Monastery in a 1989 protest.

There were some positive developments regarding the early release of prisoners. In February 2005, the Dui Hua Foundation confirmed the release of two Tibetans named Thatso and Thongtso (who may be nuns) in July 2004 at the conclusion of their three-and-a-half-year sentences for “inciting splittism,” later reduced by ten months.

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. Some converts to Christianity may have encountered societal pressure.

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.

Prior to the January 2005 commutation of Tenzin Delek’s death sentence, numerous high-level U.S. officials including the Ambassador and the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor raised concerns about his case in meetings with Chinese officials.

Embassy and consulate officials protested and sought further information on cases whenever there were credible reports of religious persecution or discrimination. U.S. officials in Washington, Beijing and Chengdu pressed for the release of Geshe Sonam Phuntsog and other Tibetan Buddhist prisoners, advocated for international access to Gendun Choekyi Nyima, and urged the Chinese Government to pursue dialogue with the Dalai Lama and his representatives.

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 regularly to the TAR and other Tibetan areas to monitor the status of religious freedom.

U.S. development and exchange programs aim to strengthen Tibetan communities in China and preserve their environmental and cultural heritage. Both are inextricably linked to Tibet’s Buddhist religious tradition. The U.S. Mission in China has also promoted religious dialogue through its exchange visitor program, which financed the travel of several prominent scholars of traditional Tibetan culture and religion to the United States.

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