Just weeks after the Dalai Lama’s visit to Washington, D.C., and before the US-China Summit in Beijing, the US State Department has reported that religious repression in Tibet is “high” and Chinese government control over monasteries and other religious institutions is “extraordinarily tight.” Secretary of State Clinton, in releasing the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report stated that “the issue of religious freedom a priority in our diplomacy.” The International Campaign for Tibet therefore welcomes the timely release of this report which presents a comprehensive overview of events and the issues behind those events which have had an impact on religious freedom in Tibet over the past year.

“This report should inform the President’s agenda as he heads to Beijing in three weeks for the summit. President Obama should take this opportunity to reassure Tibetans and others in China persecuted for attempting to freely exercise their faith that the United States stands with them,” said Todd Stein, Director of Government Relations at the International Campaign for Tibet. “We also urge the Administration to appoint the long-vacant position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, who is an integral part of their human rights team and can put the report’s findings into policy-making.”

In detailing the severe restrictions of the practice of religious freedom in Tibet, the State Department’s report states that the Chinese authorities “remained wary of Tibetan Buddhism and its links to the Dalai Lama,” noting that the Chinese state only protects “normal” religious activities, as per the Chinese Constitution.

A common theme throughout the State Department’s report is the Chinese authorities’ interference in the traditional norms of Tibetan Buddhism, ranging from limiting the number of monks at monasteries, to limiting where monks can travel for religious training – from refusing to issue passports for foreign travel through to sometimes refusing permission to travel within a single county; and from co-opting the education of young reincarnated lamas to pressuring government employees to withdraw their children from all forms of religious education.

The report reviews the “nearly all […] peaceful” protests of March 2008 and beyond, and goes on to detail other protests, detentions, and sentencings that have taken place since, including a spate of protests by monks and nuns marking the Tibetan New Year in February 2009, and the one-year anniversary of the protests in March 2009, which coincided with 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile. Prominent cases mentioned in the report include that of Phurbu Rinpoche – a highly respected lama in eastern Tibet – who he and his lawyer contend was framed using planted evidence and confessions extorted through torture. Also detailed are numerous other cases of Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as lay people, who were “subjected to extrajudicial punishments, such as beatings and deprivation of food, water, and sleep for long periods,” whereas “the bodies of some people who […] died during interrogation were disposed of secretly rather than being returned to their families.”

The State Department’s report goes on to detail developments, including ‘patriotic education’ which has “intensified dramatically” in monasteries and state-run institutions, and has become “a routine part of monastic management”. At Kumbum monastery, for example, one of the major seats of Buddhist learning in Tibet, monks were told in March 2009 that they would face expulsion if they “damage[d] the image of the monastery” or broke any laws, according to the report.

The report also details the restrictions on religious freedom for ordinary Tibetans, including the sometimes severe sanctions against people for displaying any form of spiritual devotion to the Dalai Lama, or to Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the young boy recognized by the Dalai Lama to be the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995, and who was subsequently “disappeared” by the Chinese authorities. Restrictions on showing devotion even stretched to a ban on naming children, states the report, when authorities “prohibited the registration of names for children that included one or more of the names of the Dalai Lama or certain names included on a list of blessed names approved by the Dalai Lama.”