WASHINGTON // President Barack Obama yesterday defied warnings from China and welcomed to the White House the Dalai Lama, who said that the US leader shared his concerns about human rights in Tibet.
The White House choreographed the Dalai Lama's visit to be as low key as possible, barring the press and not announcing the meeting until hours before the Tibetan spiritual leader was set to close an 11-day trip to Washington.
A White House official said that the two Nobel Peace Prize winners spoke for 44 minutes in the White House's residence and away from the Oval Office where presidents traditionally meet world leaders.
The Dalai Lama said that he felt close to Mr Obama at a "human level" and that the US leader shared his concerns about the situation in Tibet, which the Buddhist leader fled in 1959 for safety in India.
Mr Obama is "president of the greatest democratic country, so naturally he is showing concern about basic human values, human rights, religious freedom", the Dalai Lama said after the meeting.
"So naturally he shows genuine concern about the suffering in Tibet and also some other places," he said.
The White House, in a statement, also highlighted concerns about human rights and said Mr Obama supported dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama's representatives.
"This meeting underscores the president's strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans," the White House statement said.
The Dalai Lama, a pacifist, says that he is peacefully seeking greater rights in Tibet and accepts Chinese rule.
But Beijing insists that he is a "splittist" bent on dividing China. It has sought to isolate the Dalai Lama on the world stage, aghast at his global popularity.
China had warned the United States not to receive him and lodged an official protest, warning that Mr Obama "could harm US-Chinese relations" if he went ahead.
"We are firmly opposed to any foreign politician meeting the Dalai Lama in any form whatsoever," the foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
China has held nine rounds of talks with the Dalai Lama's envoys, the last in January 2010. But the dialogue has yielded no real progress, leading many Tibetans to believe Beijing is trying to wait out the 76-year-old monk's death in hopes that his calls for greater rights will wither away without him.
The meeting is Mr Obama's second in office with the Dalai Lama; his first, in February 2010, was also closed to the press. Previous president George W Bush met the Dalai Lama openly to award him a Congressional gold medal.
The Obama administration has sought stable relations with China, a growing military and economic power and major holder of US debt. In January, the US rolled out the red carpet for President Hu Jintao on a state visit.
Mr Obama's long silence on whether he would meet the Dalai Lama led several legislators to conclude that he rejected a meeting.
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House foreign affairs committee, welcomed Mr Obama's decision "to extend to the Dalai Lama the respect and courtesy he deserves as a globally respected leader."
"This meeting is better late than never, but it remains disappointing that the Dalai Lama was squeezed in at the last minute after much apparent hemming-and-hawing from the White House due to objections from Beijing," she said.
"This shouldn't have been such a difficult decision," said Ms Ros-Lehtinen, a member of the rival Republican Party.
Rights groups this year reported a major crackdown on Kirti monastery in Sichuan province after an anti-government protest. The International Campaign for Tibet said police rounded up hundreds of monks and that two elderly Tibetan laypeople died after police beatings.