GENEVA (Reuters) - The Buddhist group leading a global campaign of harrassment against the Dalai Lama has called off its demonstrations and disbanded, according to a statement on its website.
The announcement comes after a Reuters investigation revealed in December that China's ruling Communist Party backs the Buddhist religious sect behind the protests that have confronted the Dalai Lama in almost every country he visits.
Reuters found that the sect had become a key instrument in China's campaign to discredit the Tibetan spiritual leader.
The directors of the International Shugden Community (ISC) had decided to "completely stop organising demonstrations against the Dalai Lama", said the statement on the website of the Buddhist group. From March 10, the ISC and its websites would dissolve, the statement added, without giving any explanation.
The undated message was in the name of Mr Len Foley, an ISC spokesman. The telephone number for Mr Foley listed on the group's earlier publicity material is now disconnected.
Mr Nicholas Pitts, a Hong Kong-based spokesman for the ISC, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Dalai Lama said he was aware of the decision by the ISC to disband.
"I don't know," he said, when asked what was behind the group's announcement. "Your article was something complete, holistic sort of presentation, it was very helpful," he added, referring to the Reuters investigation.
The Tibetan spiritual leader spoke to a Reuters reporter on the sidelines of a media briefing in Geneva today.
More than five decades after he fled into exile in India following a failed uprising against Chinese rule, the Dalai Lama still exerts considerable religious authority over many of the six million ethnic Tibetans living within China's borders.
This infuriates Beijing, which routinely denounces him as a separatist, accusing him of attempting to split Tibet from China.
In the United States, the ISC is registered as a charity in California. Since 2014, its spokespeople have said they are responsible for organizing the protests but denied any link with Beijing or the Chinese Communist Party.
The protesters are members of a sect that worships Dorje Shugden, a deity in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama discourages this worship, warning his followers that the deity is a harmful spirit.
Dorje Shugden devotees accuse the 80-year-old Nobel Laureate of persecuting them and dividing Tibetan Buddhism.
"I myself also worshipped that," the Dalai Lama said, referring to the deity. "Out of ignorance."
But he came to the realisation that the deity was "very negative, very harmful", he said.
This had been an obscure, internal religious dispute, but it has been exported to the West. The protests have followed the Dalai Lama on his regular speaking tours to cities in North America, Europe and Australia.
Most of the protesters have been Western recruits. They joined forces with a smaller group of ethnic Tibetan devotees in chanting slogans and beating drums, sometimes disrupting the Dalai Lama's speaking and teaching engagements. They accuse the Dalai Lama of being a bigot and a fake.
The Dalai Lama's most recent engagements have been largely free of protest. There was a small demonstration earlier this week during his visit to Madison, Wisconsin, according to people close to the Tibetan spiritual leader.
While hundreds gathered today with drums and Tibetan flags opposite the United Nations building in Geneva to listen to the Dalai Lama, there was no sign of protests against the Tibetan spiritual leader.
Sonam Rinchen, an ethnic Tibetan based in the United States who was a spokesman for the ISC during protests last year, said he was unaware of the group's reasons for calling off the demonstrations.
Rinchen, who denies any links with China, said he was undecided if he would continue to protest. He and some other Shugden followers claim the Dalai Lama's call not to worship the deity has led to ostracism for devotees and their families in Tibet and abroad. Reuters could not confirm this claim.
"The people really suffering are Tibetans living as refugees and Tibetans inside Tibet," said Rinchen.
The Dalai Lama said in Geneva that it was his duty to explain why he had stopped worshipping the Dorje Shugden deity.
"Whether people listen or not is up to them," he said.
In December, Reuters reported that an internal Communist Party document distributed to Chinese officials in 2014 described the Shugden issue as "an important front in our struggle with the Dalai clique".
A monk and former member of the Shugden movement who was based in India and Nepal, Lama Tseta, told Reuters that China's powerful United Front Work Department directed the campaign against the Dalai Lama.
Tseta, who now lives in the United States, said China paid him and other Shugden monks to plan and coordinate these activities. He didn't provide documentary evidence of Chinese financing of the protests.
The Reuters investigation also revealed an internal briefing document that said the protests had become so strident that the US, Indian and other intelligence services had alerted the Dalai Lama to the threat they posed to his safety.
The security assessment was prepared for the Dalai Lama's official representative in Britain ahead of the Tibetan religious leader's two trips there last year.
In response to questions from Reuters about the Communist Party's support for the Dorje Shugden sect, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the Dalai Lama was practicing "religious tyranny".