BEIJING (Reuters) - China will never give up the right to decide on the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, a top Chinese official said on Monday, despite criticism from rights groups and the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader on the issue.
The Dalai Lama and China's officially atheist Communist Party have repeatedly tussled over who has final authority on the issue of reincarnation.
Tibetans fear that China will use the issue of the Dalai Lama's succession to split Tibetan Buddhism, with one new Dalai Lama named by exiles and one by the government after his death.
The central government has stiffened its resolve to decide on the reincarnation of "living Buddhas, so as to ensure victory over the anti-separatist struggle", Zhu Weiqun, chairman of the ethnic and religious affairs committee of the top advisory body to China's parliament, wrote in the state-run Global Times.
China says the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, is a violent separatist. The Nobel Peace laureate denies espousing violence and says he only wants genuine autonomy for Tibet.
Tibetan Buddhism holds that the soul of a senior lama is reincarnated in the body of a child on his death.
China says the tradition must continue and it must approve the next Dalai Lama. However, the Dalai Lama has said he thinks the title could end when he dies.
Chinese officials, however, have stressed that the current Dalai Lama has no right to abandon reincarnation.
In a commentary, Zhu said the issue "has never been purely a religious matter or to do with the Dalai Lama's individual rights; it is first and foremost an important political matter in Tibet and an important manifestation of the Chinese central government's sovereignty over Tibet".
As the Dalai Lama is the first political leader of Tibet, "whoever has the name of Dalai Lama will control political power in Tibet," Zhu added.
"For this reason, since historical times, the central government has never given up, and will never give up, the right to decide the reincarnation affairs of the Dalai Lama," Zhu wrote.
"It is not only necessary, but is in line with jurisprudence, and has nothing to do with whether the rulers believe in religion or not."
The Dalai Lama has said his biggest concern was that China would name his successor, saying, "The precedent has been set".
In 1995, after the Dalai Lama named a boy in Tibet as the reincarnation of the previous Panchen Lama, the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, China put the boy under house arrest and installed another instead.
Many Tibetans spurn the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama as a fake.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)