Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback on the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom, in Washington, DC, on June 21, 2019. Photo: U.S. Department of State

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Washington, DC – The United States renewed its strong call for the release of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima who was recognised as the 11th Panchen Lama. The six-year-old boy disappeared in 1995 soon after His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognised him as the reincarnation of Panchen Lama, the second most senior figure in Tibetan Buddhism.

Sam Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, said that the United States has no idea about the whereabouts of Panchen Lama and it continues to press Chinese authorities for his release. The U.S. diplomat also reiterated that the Chinese communist-authoritarian regime has no right to appoint the next Dalai Lama as they continue to assert the contrary.

“We continue to press the Chinese authorities to release the Panchen Lama and to let him free, but (also) let the world know where he is,” Brownback told reporters during a briefing on COVID-19 impact on religious minorities.

The Ambassador said that the U.S. government will continue to raise the issue, highlighting that it is gaining traction in the U.S. Congress and in places around the world because of the Dalai Lama's succession issues. Brownback quipped that the Chinese don’t have the right to appoint the next Dalai Lama any more than they have the right to appoint the next pope.

In a previous media release, issued on April 24, 2020, the commission said that the "USCIRF reiterated its call for the Chinese government to release Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, one of USCIRF’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience. On May 15, 1995, His Holiness the Dalai Lama chose the then six-year-old Gedhun to be the 11th Panchen Lama. Three days later, Chinese authorities kidnapped him and his family. He has not been seen or heard from since."

“The Chinese government is so desperate to stifle Tibetan Buddhism that it kidnapped a six-year-old boy,” noted USCIRF Vice Chair Nadine Maenza, who advocates for Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as part of USCIRF’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project. “Unfortunately, Gedhun’s tragic plight represents the struggles of millions of Chinese believers to practice their faith in the face of an unprecedented crackdown.”

“Saturday, April 25 will be Panchen Gedhun Choekyi Nyima’s 31st birthday,” added USCIRF Commissioner Tenzin Dorjee, who has advocated for his freedom for four years now. “The Panchen Lama of Tibet has been kept isolated since he was a child and denied the opportunity to live a normal life. We urge the Chinese government to show a video evidence of his safety during this COVID-19 pandemic out of human dignity and free the Panchen Lama immediately.”

U.S. Representative James McGovern also advocates on behalf of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima through the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission’s Defending Freedoms Project.

In its 2019 Annual Report, USCIRF called on the administration to use its authority under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and the International Religious Freedom Act to impose targeted sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for severe religious freedom violations, especially Chen Quanguo, the current Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang and former Secretary for Tibet.

In February 2020, USCIRF released a factsheet explaining how the Chinese government’s new Regulation for Religious Groups could further restrict religious freedom.