Pope John Paul II Meets With Dalai Lama

Pope John Paul II received the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, in an audience Thursday that the Vatican kept extremely low-key to avoid a further chill in its icy relations with China.

A one-line statement by papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls called it a "brief courtesy visit of strictly religious content."

The Dalai Lama is making a three-day visit to Italy with a message that countries shouldn't confront China directly on the delicate Tibet issue but rather befriend it and then work to promote human rights and religious freedom.

The Dalai Lama wants autonomy for Tibet, which China has occupied since 1951. He led about 80,000 Tibetans into exile in 1959, and heads a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India.

The 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner met with members of parliament and a deputy foreign minister Wednesday. It was not clear whether he would meet with Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

When asked Wednesday whether he was concerned that China was pressuring world leaders not to receive him, the Dalai Lama said he had no such worries.

"I do not want to create any embarrassment, any inconvenience," he said. "My main sort of interest, or main purpose or goal is promotion of human values and promotion of religious harmony."

He told reporters that while he had no specific issues he wanted to raise with John Paul he did want to express his appreciation for the pope's work promoting peace and religious harmony "in spite of his age, his health."

It was the eighth time the pope and the Dalai Lama have met, but Vatican officials made clear they did not want to hinder attempts for a dialogue with Beijing by giving the audience a high profile. No reporters were present and it was not formally announced in advance.

China and the Vatican do not have formal ties and Beijing has demanded that the Vatican break diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

China allows its Catholics to worship only in a state-monitored church with no official ties to the Vatican. Millions of others belong to an underground church that remains loyal to the pope, but its priests and members are often arrested and harassed.