March 17, 2006

China set to host Buddhist forum

By Benjamin Kang Lim

BEIJING (Reuters) - China is set to host its first major
international forum on Buddhism since 1949 to complement
President Hu Jintao's campaign to build a "harmonious society"
and burnish China's tarnished image on religious freedom.

Some 1,000 monks and experts on Buddhism from about 10
countries and China, Hong Kong and Taiwan will descend on the
scenic city of Hangzhou in the eastern province of Zhejiang for
the World Buddhist Forum opening on April 13.

"Religion will play a big role in China's creation of a
harmonious society," Xiao Wunan, vice-chairman of the World
Buddhist Peace Foundation, told Reuters when asked if the forum
indicated a greater official tolerance for religion.

A theme of the forum printed on brochures reads: "A
harmonious world begins in the mind."

Hu has launched a campaign to build a "harmonious society"
as Chinese society has become more diverse but also more
unequal. The government continues strict curbs on religious
practice, but has also sought to fend off international
criticism by underscoring the country's diversity of beliefs.

Many Catholics worship in underground churches and
Protestant preachers have been detained for peddling
unauthorized versions of the Bible.

The government is generally less fearful of Buddhism with
its home-grown roots, but maintains tight control on
monasteries, especially in Tibet where nuns and priests have
been jailed for expressing sympathy with the exiled Dalai Lama.

It was unclear whether Hu or the Communist Party's
24-member decision-making Politburo had given their blessings
to the forum, organized by China's Buddhist Association and the
China Association for Religious and Cultural Exchanges.

"Government support for such a big event is very
important," Xiao, a 41-year old convert to Tibetan Buddhism,
said in an interview. He declined to elaborate or confirm
whether any member of the Politburo would attend.


Observers said the forum in Hangzhou was a low-risk move
that could help counter damage to Hu's and China's image caused
by government crackdowns on journalists, Internet writers,
civil rights campaigners and academics in the past year.

"My guess is it needs Hu's approval ... It'll change his
image but it's also the safest, the least troublesome and an
easy event to control," said Xu Youyu, an expert on philosophy
at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government

The four-day forum is to move on April 15 to nearby
Zhoushan, where delegates will pray for world peace.

Hu's policy on religion appears to extend changes made by
his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who banned the Falun Gong
spiritual movement and jailed thousands of adherents but also
sought to raise the profile of officially approved religions.

Under Jiang, China refused to recognize the boy chosen by
the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the second holiest monk
in Tibetan Buddhism and anointed its own Panchen Lama.

China's atheist Communist leaders are deeply suspicious of
religion and see it as a tool to help control a population of
1.3 billion, the biggest in the world. But the end of Mao
Zedong's personality cult after his death in 1976 has left an
ideological vacuum which the party has been unable to fill.

In January, Jia Qinglin, ranked fourth in the Communist
Party hierarchy, warned against foreign infiltration using

Two of the top lamas of Tibetan Buddhism will be absent
from the forum. The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India
since 1959 when he fled his Himalayan homeland after an
abortive uprising.

The Karmapa Lama, the third ranking monk in Tibetan
Buddhism, joined the Dalai Lama in India in 1999.

"The time is not ripe. But we do not rule out the
possibility in the future," Xiao said when asked why they were
not invited.

It was unclear whether the Beijing-anointed Panchen Lama,
ranked second behind the Dalai Lama, would attend. The boy
chosen by the Dalai Lama has disappeared from public view.