WASHINGTON (AP) -- The degree to which President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama will interact Thursday during the National Prayer Breakfast is unclear, but at least a chance encounter is possible, and such a meeting would almost certainly draw the ire of China.
Obama is to sit at the head table with other speakers for the annual event, which brings together U.S. and international leaders from different parties and faiths for one spiritual hour. Event organizers say the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism will be in the audience of about 3,600, seated close to the dais and actor Richard Gere, a friend and follower.
The Dalai Lama spoke Wednesday at a luncheon closed to the media. But the White House downplayed the prospect of any official engagement meeting between the fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners. Still, the prayer breakfast has already drawn criticism from China, which considers the Dalai Lama an anti-Chinese separatist because of his quest for greater Tibetan autonomy.
China protested each of Obama's three meetings with the Dalai Lama, which were always held privately without any news coverage because of the sensitivity of the encounter. But President George W. Bush ignored furious Chinese objections when he presented the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal at the Capitol Rotunda in 2007.
Last year at the prayer breakfast, Obama criticized China for failing to protect religious freedom. When meeting with Chinese leaders, he said, "I stress that realizing China's potential rests on upholding universal rights, including for Christians and Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims."
National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Obama plans to speak on the importance of upholding religious freedoms again this year. The message will undoubtedly be underscored by the Dalai Lama's presence.
"The president is a strong supporter of the Dalai Lama's teachings and preserving Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions," Ventrell said.
China warned once again that it would strongly oppose any country's leader meeting with the Dalai Lama, who fled to exile in India after a failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, and regard it as interference in China's internal affairs. But Republican Sen. John Boozman, who plans to sit next to the Dalai Lama, said the spiritual leader's attendance has nothing to do with China.
"It's just a special time when people from the entire world come together to talk about their faith and pray together," Boozman said. "Especially in these troubled times, it's a remarkable time. I sense the Dalai Lama being there says how important this has become."
The troubled times has led Jordan's King Abdullah II to cancel his plans to attend the breakfast. Islamic State militants released a video this week showing a Jordanian pilot being burned to death. Organizers said a stand-in for the king will read the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan, who saved a stranger who had been beaten and left for dead. Also planning to speak is Dr. Kent Brantly, who contracted Ebola while helping patients in Liberia and then recovered in the United States.
Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.
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