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BEIJING (Reuters) - Patriotism is the "mission" of religion in China, but greed is tainting Tibetan Buddhism, says the government-appointed second-highest spiritual leader of the faith, who was chosen by Beijing to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans.
Although officially atheist, China in 1995 selected Gyaltsen Norbu as Tibet's 11th Panchen Lama, the number-two spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.
Tibet's current spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing brands a dangerous separatist, had announced his own choice of a six-year-old boy to replace the previous Panchen Lama, but he was taken away by authorities and has since vanished from public view.
Speaking at the yearly meeting of the advisory Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing on Saturday, China's Panchen Lama said that "as the retail economy grows, Buddhism has come under attack from commercialisation".
"Some places use monasteries as money trees, turn them into family temples, turn them into shopping malls; while some fake living Buddhas and fake monks use dubious Buddhist teachings to swindle believers," he said, according to state media.
"The historic mission for religion at this time is: to love the nation and love faith... and to contribute to achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people," he said, referring to a political goal of the ruling Communist Party.
His remarks come amid China's controversial work to "reconstruct" southwest Sichuan province's Larung Gar monastery, one of China's largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Rights groups say the plans represent an assault on faith in China.
A Sichuan official, Yeshe Dawa, told the official China Daily that the plan was not to "demolish" the monastery but to "improve the messy surroundings" so as to turn it into a "formal Buddhist academy," the paper said on Tuesday.
According to state media, the Panchen Lama made no mention of the monastery in his speech.
China has gradually raised the public profile of its Panchen Lama, hoping Tibetans will come to respect him as they do the Dalai Lama.
Chinese troops "peacefully liberated" Tibet in 1950. China routinely rejects criticism of its rule there, saying it has brought much needed development to a remote region and that it respects Tibet's culture and religion.
After the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, the 10th Panchen Lama stayed on and was initially seen as a collaborator. It later emerged that his criticism of Beijing had earned him more than a decade spent either in prison or under house arrest.
Freed in 1977, he was politically rehabilitated the following year, and died in 1989.
Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Michael Perry