Pope Francis is more than a religious leader — he’s also a politician. And that’s led him to controversially deny an audience to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet.
During his still young and highly ambitious papacy, Francis has made it clear he would like to broaden his church’s appeal. That includes expanding the Roman Catholic Church’s reach in China, where the ruling Communist Party maintains and iron grip on spiritual life. Estimates put China’s Catholic population around 12 million. Some 5.3 million are said to practice their faith through the official, party-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
But the Patriotic Association refuses to recognize Vatican authority, denying the Holy See the power to appoint bishops in China. That bars the Vatican from its key place in Catholic spiritual life. As Francis tries to expand his church’s reach beyond the secular West and toward the more spiritually inclined populations of the developing world, China’s 1.35 billion people are an appealing target.
And that’s where the Dalai Lama comes in. Chinese authorities view the spiritual leader as a dangerous heretic with considerable political influence able to stir up discontent within China’s borders. Since his exile from Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama has waged a careful campaign to win his home province, whose government was dissolved by Beijing the same year the Dalai Lama fled amid an uprising, more rights.
Vatican officials frankly explained why they denied the Dalai Lama’s request for a papal audience. He was rebuffed “for obvious reasons concerning the delicate situation” with China, one papal official told Reuters. An anonymous Vatican official told the news agency that the decision was “not taken out of fear but to avoid any suffering by those who have already suffered.”
China zealously pressures world leaders not to meet with him; chalk one up for Beijing. The Dalai Lama heads to Rome to meet with the Nobel Peace Prize winners gathered there, leading him to call on the pope.
The peacemakers meeting was set for Cape Town in October but was canceled when South Africa, another country seeking closer ties with China, refused to issue the Dalai Lama a visa. So, chalk two up for Beijing.
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