South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, successor to Nelson Mandela, is embroiled in a diplomatic row after refusing a one-on-one meeting with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel peace laureate, the Dalai Lama.

The Tibetan leader arrived in South Africa last week to attend the Parliament of World Religions, which is about to open in Cape Town. Theologians and representatives of the world's main religions are now arriving in South Africa for the meeting, which will bring about 6000 members of all faiths to Cape Town.

A national newspaper, the Sunday Independent, reported on November 28 that President Mbeki had caved in to pressure from Beijing to cancel a meeting with the Dalai Lama on December 7. Beijing, which occupies Tibet and has been accused of suppressing ancient Tibetan culture and interfering with its religious institutions, is highly critical of those who campaign for Tibetan independence.

The pressure was reportedly applied by a senior Chinese politician, Li Peng, who visited South Africa earlier this month. The newspaper revealed that sources in the Office of the President said that Li Peng had told Mbeki he must not meet the Dalai Lama. "The source suggested it was hard to refuse China because of its huge market potential and its veto in the United Nations Security Council," the Sunday Independent said.

Li Peng also tried to scuttle meetings between the Dalai Lama and Israeli politicians last week, when both he and the Tibetan spiritual leader were in Israel.

He told an Israeli journalist that "the Dalai Lama is not simply a religious figure. He is a separatist engaged in separating China. That is why China rejects political activities carried out in other countries against China."

He also cancelled a dinner with ...

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