George Bush has risked angering Beijing by calling on Chinese leaders to welcome the Dalai Lama to their country.
The US President called him a "universal symbol of peace and tolerance, a shepherd of the faithful and a keeper of the flame for his people".
"He has won the respect and affection of the American people," Mr Bush said yesterday at the US Capitol building, where the spiritual head of Tibet's Buddhists received the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal. "America cannot look to the plight of the religously oppressed and close their eyes or turn away," said Mr Bush, who handed the medal to the Dalai Lama.
China, which reviles the 72-year-old monk as a Tibetan separatist, has vehemently protested against the ceremony. But at a news conference earlier in the day, Mr Bush said he did not believe that his attendance at the ceremony honouring the Dalai Lama would damage US relations with China. "I support religious freedom; he supports religious freedom... I want to honor this man," Mr Bush said at the White House. "I have consistently told the Chinese that religious freedom is in their nation's interest. I've also told them that it's in their interest to meet with the Dalai Lama and will say so at the ceremony."
The Republican Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said this was the first time a president has appeared in public with the Dalai Lama. The Bush administration took pains on Tuesday to keep a private meeting between the men from further infuriating China: no media access, not even a handout photo.