U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday called the Dalai Lama a "good friend'' and an inspiration for freedom.
The president, speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, a closely watched event in Washington with the lama in the audience, said Tibet's exiled spiritual leader was "a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion and who inspires us to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings.''
Obama and the Dalai Lama exchanged greetings but did not meet directly.
Both figures were at an annual prayer breakfast in Washington where Obama spoke about the importance of religious freedom. The Dalai Lama was seated at a table in the front row across from the president.
Obama nodded and smiled at the Dalai Lama, waving after clasping his hands together in a bow-like gesture toward the Buddhist monk as the event began.
Organizers also recognized the spiritual leader, prompting applause.
Senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett was seated at the table with the Dalai Lama, a sign of White House support for his presence.
The exchange may still rile China, which bristles at politicians meeting with the Dalai Lama. After the breakfast event was announced, Beijing said it opposed any country meeting with him under any circumstances.
Despite the Dalai Lama's insistence that he is only seeking autonomy for Tibet, China views the spiritual leader as a dangerous separatist, and regularly condemns leaders who meet with him.
"We are against any country’s interference in China’s domestic affairs under the pretext of Tibet-related issues, and are opposed to any foreign leader’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in any form,” China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday.
Before the event, an English-language commentary issued by the state-run Xinhua news agency, which while not a formal statement offers a reflection of Beijing's thinking, strongly warned against any encounter.
"Chumming with a secessionist is playing with fire,'' the agency said. "If Obama meets the Dalai Lama, he will simply reverse the positive trends established by China and the U.S. in the development of their relations. For all that, any possible meeting or encounter with the Dalai Lama planned by Obama will dampen the hard-won positive momentum in China-U.S. relations,'' it said.
Since taking office, President Obama has met the Dalai Lama three times. But none of the meetings have been held in public.
Over 3,000 people from various faith backgrounds are expected to attend the high-profile National Prayer Breakfast, which will focus on the importance of religious freedom.
Many Tibetans in China accuse the government of a campaign of religious and cultural persecution, as the country's majority Han ethnic group continues to move into historically Tibetan areas.
China rejects that, saying Tibetans enjoy religious freedom. Beijing also points to huge ongoing investment it says has brought modernization and an increased standard of living to Tibet.
Since February 2009, more than 126 people have self-immolated in traditionally Tibetan areas of China to protest Beijing's policy in their homeland.
The Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Authority, located in India, are outspoken critics of China's policies, but have discouraged the suicide protests.