BEIJING (Reuters) - The Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama, the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, has won broad praise since taking up the position two decades ago in what was a great victory against separatists, a top official was quoted as saying on Wednesday.
Controversy surrounds the position of the Panchen Lama since the boy exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama named as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama disappeared when he was six.
China's Communist Party has long maintained the Dalai Lama's choice, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, now 26, is not the real Panchen Lama, and in 1995, the government selected Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama. He is spurned by many Tibetans as a fake.
At a ceremony in Tibet's Shigatse, the Panchen Lama's traditional seat, to mark 20 years since China's choice of Panchen Lama was appointed, a senior Chinese official said the Panchen Lama had been chosen completely in line with religious rules.
"This successful example of locating and recognizing the reincarnation of a living Buddha is an important event in the Tibetan Buddhist world," Sithar, a deputy minister of the United Front Work Department, which is in charge of co-opting minorities and religious groups, was cited by the official Tibet Daily as saying.
"It is a full expression of the party and government's respect for the people's religious feeling and protecting the interests of the faithful," added Sithar, an ethnic Tibetan who goes by one name.
The choice was "yet another victory in the blow-for-blow struggle against splittists", he said. Beijing denounces the Dalai Lama as a dangerous "splittist", or separatist, a charge he denies.
Over the past 20 years, with the "kindness" of the party, China's Panchen Lama had strictly followed Buddhism's precepts, studied hard, "got the people to like him and become more firmly politically mature", Sithar added.
He "has been the good image of a great living Buddha and has been widely praised by all walks of life".
Tibetan Buddhism holds that the soul of a senior lama is reincarnated in the body of a child on his death.
Many Tibetans fear Beijing will use the issue of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dalai Lama's eventual death and succession to split Tibetan Buddhism, with one new Dalai Lama named by exiles and one by the government.
Beijing insists it must approve the next Dalai Lama, though the title's current holder has said it could end when he dies.
The Chinese government sees the appointment of the next Dalai Lama as key to consolidating control over Tibet, which it has ruled with an iron fist since troops marched in 1950.
The Dalai Lama fled into exile in India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)