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China Tightens Restrictions on Tibetan New Year Events, Citing COVID-19 Concerns

2021-02-23 -- Authorities in Tibetan areas of China have further tightened restrictions on public gatherings at Buddhist monasteries during the Lunar New Year period, limiting attendance at previously widely attended religious ceremonies in one case to the resident monks, Tibetan sources say.

The first three days of the New Year, beginning this year on Feb. 12 and called Losar in Tibetan, are usually packed with festivals and religious ceremonies, with most Tibetan Buddhists across the region visiting monasteries and temples for traditional observances.

Responsibility for traditional prayer festivals at Gansu province's Labrang Tashi Kyil and Qinghai's Rebgong Rongwo monastery has now been taken from the monasteries themselves and put in the hands of local religious affairs committees, one local source told RFA's Tibetan Service.

"According to strict guidelines, the monasteries will not be allowed to independently arrange the routines of the Choetrul Monlam prayer festival," RFA's source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Also called Monlam Chenmo, the annual prayer festival traditionally draws thousands of participants, but attendance at Labrang and Rebgong will be limited this year to monastery residents and a few selected locals "as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus," the source said, quoting official notices.

"Monasteries in the Qinghai region have also been barred from hanging decorated tapestries related to the annual prayers and from performing the traditional Cham religious dances," a source living in Rebgong said.

In Gansu, Labrang monastery will remain closed to visitors from Feb. 12 to Feb. 28, while at Kumbum monastery in Qinghai, members of the public have been barred from taking part in a special flower ritual usually performed on the 15th day of Losar—this year on Feb. 26—with concerns over the spread of COVID-19 cited by authorities as the reason for the ban.

"Local Tibetans are also barred from taking part in Choetrul Monlam in Dargye monastery in [Sichuan's] Kardze [Ganzi] prefecture, and in other monasteries nearby," another source said. "According to notices sent out by local Chinese officials, the guidelines and restrictions must be obeyed in order to contain the spread of coronavirus."

Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and Tibetan-populated regions of western China have frequently become the focus of efforts to promote not just religious but Tibetan cultural values, and residents in some areas have voiced doubts over official reasons for the restrictions on attendance at traditional events.

Reported by Lhuboom and Chakmo Tso for RFA's Tibetan Service. Translated by Tenzin Dickyi. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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