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Sunday, 27 September 2015





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Welcoming the Pope and shunning Dalai Lama

When the United States established diplomatic relations with the Holy See back in January 1984, a televangelist asked rather sarcastically: when will Mecca send its own ambassador to Washington DC?

“It’s an odd fact of history,” ruminates Time magazine, “that the world’s youngest empire, the US, established diplomatic relations with the oldest, the Holy See, only a little over 30 years ago under President Ronald Reagan,” who was long described as an advocate of church-state separation.

Over the last 70 years of the UN’s existence, successive Popes, representing more than one billion Catholics, have had the privilege of addressing the 193-member General Assembly.

Pope John Paul II addressed the UN in 1979 and 1995 and Pope Benedict XVI spoke to delegates in 2008. Pope Francis, who addressed the UN’s highest policy-making body on Friday (25), will be the fourth to speak before the UN.

But other religious leaders, including Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, have never been offered that privilege – except participation in high-level forums.

Since Islam is not an institutionalized religion, it does not have the equivalent of either a Pope or a Vatican — although there are more than 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, perhaps far exceeding Catholics.

The Holy See is not a full-fledged UN member state but only holds the status of a “non-member observer state” — like Palestine. Asked if there were any other religious leaders who were known to have addressed the world body, UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS: “It’s possible, if a religious leader were a head of state.”

He still admitted, it was ‘hard to say.’ In July 1974, Archbishop Makarios, first president of the Republic of Cyprus, addressed the UN Security Council after his ouster following the invasion of Cyprus by Greece.

However, what has been unequivocally re-affirmed over the last few decades is that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists, continues to be barred from the UN and virtually declared persona non grata — primarily for political reasons.Tibet is currently under Chinese rule but there are dissident groups, which want to break away from China seeking independence.

But China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council has taken a tough stand against Tibetan dissidents – and specifically the Dalai Lama, although he would accept Tibet as a genuine autonomous region within the People’s Republic of China.

Saying no to Dalai Lama

With various UN member states trying to keep dissidents and separatists out of the world body, the battle has occasionally shifted to the United Nations.

When the Dalai Lama was invited to address a religious meeting in the late 1990s, the Chinese got wind of it – and the ambassador personally registered his protest at the 38th floor of the Secretary-General, ensuring the Dalai Lama would not address any gathering inside the UN building. A similar episode took place earlier when the Dalai Lama was barred from participating or addressing the UN Human Rights conference in June 1993 in the Austrian capital of Vienna.

Joe Lauria, UN correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, told IPS: “I recall when the UN Correspondents’ Association (UNCA) in May 1993 invited Chinese dissident Shen Tong to come to the UN and UN security, on orders from then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, blocked him at the visitor’s entrance, where I stood to greet him on behalf of UNCA.”

“I brought him into the building eventually and all the way to UNCA’s door where security guards wouldn’t let him go further. So we took him back to the street where we held the press conference in front of the gate. I remember it got lots of coverage all day.” But Lauria said he does not recall the Dalai Lama being blocked from entering the UN premises. Speaking on condition of anonymity, another longstanding UN correspondent told IPS about the arrival of a delegation of ‘ordinary’ Tibetans for a meeting at the UN, many moons ago.

“They were Canadian citizens and came in wearing Western clothes. Once in, they changed into traditional dress. The Chinese were furious but there were no grounds to kick out Canadians,” he said. Another ex-journalist and former UN Bureau Chief told IPS, the Dalai Lama has never been allowed to address the UN — courtesy of China.

“I discovered this years ago when there was a conference of world religious leaders.” He had to ‘cancel’ an appearance even at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West side of New York city.

“When I asked cathedral officials why they were allowing the extraterritorial jurisdiction by the UN, they said lamely that the Dalai Lama had other engagements and couldn’t make it. I always doubted that, but Buddhists don’t come out shouting.”

Javier El-Hage, Chief Legal Officer, Human Rights Foundation (HRF) told IPS that HRF believes, in order to truly be the voice of the voiceless, Pope Francis should use the privilege of speaking at the United Nations to speak on behalf of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, whose voices are routinely silenced by the powerful Chinese dictatorship.

“Unfortunately, there is little hope that the highest representative of Catholicism will do this, given that last year he declined to meet with the Dalai Lama in Rome precisely in order not to upset China’s rulers.”

Pope Francis should consider that, as with any other valuable asset, a religious leader’s huge moral capital can go to waste when he fails to use the opportunity to truly stand with the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, and instead chooses to take friendly pictures with and provide legitimacy to authoritarian leaders, he added.




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