DHARMSALA, India (AP) — The Dalai Lama on Wednesday fasted and led prayers in honor of nine Tibetans who set themselves on fire in apparent protest against China's tight grip over Buddhist practices in Tibet.
A 90-minute-long prayer service at the Dalai Lama's Tsuglakhang Temple, in the northern Indian town of Dharmsala, was in honor of the monks, former monks and a nun who have self-immolated since March calling for religious freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama.
Aged in their late teens and twenties, at least five died of their injuries, while the condition of the other four is not known.
At the service, the newly elected prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, urged China to stop repression in Tibet and called on the United Nations to send fact-finding teams to the Himalayan region.
Sangay, speaking in Tibetan, said China was following an official policy of cracking down on religious institutions in Tibet.
"We would like to appeal to the Chinese government to immediately stop its repressive policies in Tibet, and to resolve the issue of Tibet through peaceful means," Sangay said.
China says Tibet has been its territory for centuries, but many Tibetans say it has a long history of autonomous rule by Buddhist leaders.
A failed uprising in 1959 led the Dalai Lama to flee into exile in India.
China considers the Dalai Lama to be a separatist intent on ending Chinese rule over Tibet. The Dalai Lama says he is seeking only a high level of autonomy for Tibet.
The Dalai Lama will observe a daylong fast Wednesday in honor of those who have died or injured themselves through self-immolation, the first time he has done so since widespread protests rocked the region in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics.
As the Dalai Lama led the rhythmic prayers facing a statue of the Buddha, a dozen or so Tibetans, their faces masked against the smoke, tended butter lamps intended to benefit the souls of the five protesters who died.
"The prayers are for the dead and to alleviate the suffering of those who are still suffering in Tibet," said Lobsang Choedak, an official of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
The prayers were attended by the Karmapa, head of a Tibetan Buddhism school, and Kirti Rinpoche, the exiled head of the Kirti monastery in China's western province of Sichuan near Tibet. Most of the monks and former monks who have self-immolated belonged to Kirti monastery.
In New Delhi, religious leaders participated in a multi-faith prayer held at the memorial to India's independence leader, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Later, hundreds of protesters, carrying the blue and red Tibetan flags, marched through central streets shouting slogans demanding freedom for Tibet and an end to Chinese rule there.
Monks and nuns, wearing saffron and maroon robes, carried placards and banners that said: "Tibetans want freedom to use the Tibetan language," ''Stop destroying Tibetan culture," and "Stop environmental destruction in Tibet."