Ulan Bator, Mongolia, 22 August 2006 (AFP) - Thousands of Mongolians have flocked to a monastery in Ulan Bator to welcome the Dalai Lama, as China protested to its neighbor over the Tibetan spiritual leader`s visit.
Several thousand people cheered loudly as the Dalai Lama wearing traditional saffron and maroon robes -- smiled and waved to them in the grounds of the country`s biggest monastery Gandantegcheling around midday.
After he went inside the monastery to have lunch with the monks and to later give a religious lecture, worshippers flocked to the big wooden chair where he had sat and touched it to try to receive blessings.
The visit is the 1989 Nobel peace prize winner`s seventh to Mongolia, a majority Buddhist country that has deep historic and religious ties with Tibet, and it sparked an angry reaction from China.
'The Dalai Lama is not merely a religious figure, but a political exile who over a lengthy period has engaged in splittist activities and hurt national unity,' the foreign ministry said in a statement.
'China is resolutely opposed to any country offering him a stage to engage in the above-mentioned activities.'
The faxed statement to AFP was in response to a request for comment on the Dalai Lama`s visit to Mongolia, which began late on Monday and is expected to last one week.
China considers the Dalai Lama a politician intent on achieving independence for Tibet, despite his insistence he only wants limited autonomy for his homeland under Chinese rule.
China has ruled Tibet since 1951 and opposes any countries receiving the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 amid a failed uprising crushed by the Chinese military.
In 2002, the last time the Dalai Lama visited Mongolia, China showed its anger by blocking trains at the border and warning Mongolian officials not to meet with him.
Although there were no officially announced protest actions by Beijing on Tuesday, aside from the foreign ministry`s statement, an Air China flight to Ulan Bator scheduled to depart in the morning was delayed.
An employee at the national flag carrier`s customer service office in Beijing insisted the delay the 8:30 am flight was pushed back until 7:00 pm -- was due to bad weather in Ulan Bator.
However the weather in Ulan Bator was fine and sunny on Tuesday.
The Dalai Lama`s office in Dharamsala, India, where he lives in exile, maintained Tuesday that his visit to Mongolia was purely religious.
'There is no political agenda to this visit. He`s a Buddhist. He`s going to give Buddhist teachings. The Chinese are welcome to come to Mongolia and look at the visit themselves,' said Tenzin Taklha, a spokesman for the Dalai Lama.
The main purpose of the visit was 'the promotion of human values and the promotion of religious harmony,' Taklha said, adding that Mongolians had a 'long, special relationship' with Tibetans.
The Mongolian foreign affairs ministry also insisted the Dalai Lama had a right to visit and that the trip was a religious one organized by the Gandantegcheling monastery, not the government.
'The Dalai Lama visited Mongolia several times before through religious channels and was only involved in religious activities,' a statement said.
'The Ministry of Foreign Affairs considers this visit will be similar to the previous ones.'
The Dalai Lama is scheduled to give several lectures and make public appearances, including a nationally televised talk at a sports stadium.