International human rights groups on Friday denounced a Chinese government-sponsored forum on Buddhism as "cynical propaganda" aimed at sugarcoating religious repression in Tibet.
The five-day conference has included a rare appearance by 16-year-old Gyaltsen Norbu, China's disputed choice for Tibetan Buddhism's second highest leader, the Panchen Lama.
In what was believed to be his first appearance at an international forum, Norbu delivered a speech on Thursday endorsing China's policies on religion and saying Buddhists should be patriotic and "defend the nation."
Mary-Beth Markey, head of the International Campaign for Tibet, said China appeared to be using the conference to put forward an image of religious tolerance ahead of President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States.
"It's shameful that Beijing has scripted Gyaltsen Norbu ... with statements that are clearly untrue about religious freedom in China," Markey was quoted as saying in a news release.
China maintains tight control over all religions and the rules are especially restrictive in Tibet, where Buddhism is an integral part of the restive Himalayan region's separate identity.
While Beijing has allowed the rebuilding of many of the thousands of temples destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, monasteries, temples, mosques and churches are still barred from operating schools, hospitals or other civic institutions.
Markey's group claims restrictions on Buddhism in Tibet are actually getting tighter, citing new laws on religious activities and the imprisonment of several top Buddhist teachers known for their loyalty to Tibet's exiled leader, the Dalai Lama.
Beijing installed Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995, rejecting another boy chosen by the Dalai Lama. That other boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, has not been seen in public since then and Chinese officials refuse to say where he is, reports the AP.