China denies changing policy on Dalai Lama: Official

BEIJING (AFP) - China denied changing its stance on exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Saturday, after reports said Beijing had relaxed its policies of publicly denouncing him and banning worship of his image.

"Our policy towards the Dalai Lama is clear and consistent, and has not changed," China's state bureau of religious affairs said in a fax sent to AFP.

Reports by a Tibet-focused rights group and US-based Radio Free Asia said China was showing signs of rethinking some aspects of its Tibet policy, which has been blamed for sparking a wave of more than 110 self-immolations by Tibetans since 2009.

Authorities in some Tibetan areas were allowing locals to "openly venerate the Dalai Lama as a religious leader but not as a 'political' figure," Radio Free Asia reported.

Local authorities had dropped policies requiring monks to denounce the Dalai Lama, according to London-based rights group Free Tibet. The issue has been seen as a key source of tension between monks and government officials.

China regularly condemns the global spiritual figure, and has branded him an anti-China "separatist".

China's top religious authority repeated that position on Saturday, saying: "If the Dalai Lama is to improve his relations with China's government, he must drop his separatist position...and stop making statements which damage the peaceful development of Tibet." Free Tibet said Thursday that monks at a monastery in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, were told they could show pictures of the Dalai Lama, reversing a 17-year ban on displaying his image.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet following a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 and later founded the Tibetan government-in-exile in India.

The Chinese government has strongly denounced foreign leaders for meeting with the Dalai Lama, reportedly denying foreign leaders access to its top officials if they do so.

It is hard to verify information about China's policies in Tibet, as few journalists have been able to enter the region without government-appointed guides, while reports from other Tibetan areas are regularly obstructed by local police.

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