BEIJING (AP) -- China's hand-picked Panchen Lama is presiding over a key Buddhist ritual being held in Tibet for the first time in 50 years, in a move criticized by overseas Tibetan groups as an attempt to legitimize him as a religious leader.
The second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism was present for the Kalachakra instructions that began Thursday morning at his home monastery in southwestern Tibet, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The report said an estimated 50,000 Buddhists were attending the four-day event.
Beijing named its own Panchen Lama in 1995 after rejecting the 6-year-old boy who was recognized by the Dalai Lama, the highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism who fled into exile in India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese forces. The government has long vilified the Dalai Lama as a separatist and denies his traditional right to recognize reincarnated lamas.
China claims it has had sovereignty over Tibet for more than seven centuries. Many Tibetans say Tibet was essentially independent for most of that time.
London-based Free Tibet said the resumption of the ritual was intended to bolster the standing of a cleric who many Tibetans regard as a fake.
"The officially atheist Chinese government has long tried to impose its authority on Tibet by co-opting Tibetan Buddhism," Free Tibet director Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren said in a press release. The Panchen Lama's "presence at this Kalachakra stems from the Chinese occupation rather than from genuine religious legitimacy."