U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday called the Dalai Lama a "good friend'' and an inspiration for freedom.
The president, speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, a closely watched event in Washington with the lama in the audience, said Tibet's exiled spiritual leader was "a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion and who inspires us to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings.''
Despite the Dalai Lama's insistence that he is only seeking autonomy for Tibet, China views the spiritual leader as a dangerous separatist, and regularly condemns leaders who meet with him.
"We are against any country’s interference in China’s domestic affairs under the pretext of Tibet-related issues, and are opposed to any foreign leader’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in any form,” China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday.
Since taking office, President Obama has met the Dalai Lama three times. But none of the meetings have been held in public.
Over 3,000 people from various faith backgrounds are expected to attend the high-profile National Prayer Breakfast, which will focus on the importance of religious freedom.
Many Tibetans in China accuse the government of a campaign of religious and cultural persecution, as the country's majority Han ethnic group continues to move into historically Tibetan areas.
China rejects that, saying Tibetans enjoy religious freedom. Beijing also points to huge ongoing investment it says has brought modernization and an increased standard of living to Tibet.
Since February 2009, more than 126 people have self-immolated in traditionally Tibetan areas of China to protest Beijing's policy in their homeland.
The Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Authority, located in India, are outspoken critics of China's policies, but have discouraged the suicide protests.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Tibetan and Mandarin Services.