Despite censure from Beijing, Merkel meets with Dalai Lama in Berlin

Berlin, Germany - Defying Chinese criticism and pressure, Chancellor Angela Merkel met the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, on Sunday in Berlin, becoming the first German chancellor to do so, despite warnings from Beijing that it could damage economic contacts.

Merkel, who has made the defense of human rights one of the hallmarks of her foreign policy since taking office nearly two years ago, met the 72-year-old Dalai Lama in the Chancellery for private talks.

The meeting was harshly condemned by the authorities in China, one of Germany's major trading partners.

Unusually, China did not censor Internet postings that insulted Merkel, calling her a "witch" and saying she was "playing with fire."

China also canceled a high-level meeting on the protection of intellectual property rights scheduled to take place in Munich on Sunday of Chinese legal experts and Brigitte Zypries, the German justice minister. A statement from the German Justice Ministry said the meeting was called off "for technical reasons."

The Tibetan spiritual leader has been in India since 1959, leading a government in exile and demanding greater autonomy for Tibet, which was occupied by China in 1950.

Although the Dalai Lama has visited Germany several times, previous chancellors had refused to meet him, fearing it could upset relations with Beijing. Merkel met him in 2005 when she was the opposition leader.

Ulrich Wilhelm, the government spokesman, said the meeting Sunday was part of a series of contacts between the chancellor and religious leaders. He added that the meeting would involve human rights in Tibet and German-Chinese relations. "Tibet is a human rights issue that we have brought up with China," Wilhelm said.

But Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said the Dalai Lama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, was not simply a religious figure. "He is a longtime political exile engaged in separatist activities," Jiang said, adding that China opposed any contact by other governments with the Dalai Lama.

When Merkel was in China last month for an official visit, she raised the issue of human rights at almost every opportunity.

She also made it plain to the Chinese that she wanted to see progress on protecting intellectual property rights. German companies have repeatedly complained about a host of infringements.

Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama was praised by some senior officials in her party and from the opposition. A fellow conservative of Merkel's, Roland Koch, the premier of Hesse state who has forged a friendship with the Dalai Lama over 25 years and who met him over the weekend, said Merkel was right not to cave in to Chinese pressure.

"We Germans can be happy and proud that human rights issues mean so much to Angela Merkel and that she talks straight and acts accordingly," Koch said in an interview with the newspaper Bild am Sonntag.

The opposition Green Party, which was in coalition with then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats from 1998 to 2005, also praised Merkel's stance. Human rights were not a key issue during Schröder's government.