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CAPE TOWN, South Africa (RNS) An invitation to an 80th birthday party rarely causes ripples—unless it’s the Dalai Lama who’s trying to attend birthday festivities for fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The Dalai Lama will be unable to attend Tutu’s birthday party on Friday (Oct. 7) after the South African government refused to act on a visa application for the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s the second time in as many years that the Dalai Lama has been denied an entry visa to South Africa.

With the visa still in limbo, the Dalai Lama’s office in Dharamsala, India, on Tuesday said the trip was off: “Since the South African government seems to find it inconvenient to issue a visa to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness has decided to call off this visit to South Africa.”

Pretoria had not given any official reason for its delayed response, but on Wednesday blamed an incomplete application. Many here, however, suspect South Africa is bowing to pressure from China, its largest trade partner.

Tutu, who used the weight of his office to topple apartheid in the 1980s, responded with uncharacteristic fury at the diplomatic standoff.

“Our government is worse than the apartheid government because at least you would expect it with the apartheid government,” Tutu told reporters, according to The Guardian.

On Monday, a crowd of several hundred activists gathered in front of Parliament in Cape Town for a peace vigil. A large banner reading “Let him in Now! No pass laws for the Dalai Lama” invoked the apartheid-era passbooks that restricted freedom of movement for black South Africans.

“We will not exchange humanity for dollars or yuan,” union activist Tony Ehrenreich, told the gathering, referring to Chinese currency. “Our country will always be open to those who share our values.”

The retired Anglican archbishop, known to many here as “the Arch,” is beloved in South Africa for both his moral compass and for not taking himself too seriously.

“The way the Arch is being treated on his 80th birthday is an affront,” said Fatima Hassan, who helped mobilize a flood of protest tweets to the South African president’s Twitter account.

A supporter of the anti-apartheid struggle, the Dalai Lama was welcomed to South Africa when Nelson Mandela was president. China has often pressured host nations not to open venues to the exiled leader after 60 years of tense relations.

“His Holiness speaks to many audiences, and most of the time he is speaking to a general audience,” said Karen de Vos, a Buddhist practitioner in Cape Town. “But there are also people in South Africa who regard him as their actual teacher. … If we can’t get the pure teachings from a pure leader, the teachings get lost.”

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