Ulaan Baatar (AsiaNews) - His Eminence the ninth Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa, Dorjee Chang Jampel Namdrol Choekyi Gyaltsen, the much beloved spiritual head of the Jonang tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and the spiritual leader of Mongolia, passed away yesterday. He was 80 and had spent 57 years in exile because of Soviet domination of Mongolia, and later Chinese rule in Tibet.
The Tibetan government-in-exile, the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa Lama expressed their sorrow at the passing of the religious leader, well known for his ideas and his battle on behalf of Mongolia.
As a mark of respect, the offices of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala (seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile) remained closed today following the prayer service for his speedy reincarnation.
Born in 1932 in Trontsikhang, northern part of Lhasa, Dorjee (pictured) was recognised as the reincarnation of the eighth Khalkha by Reting Rinpoche, the regent at that time.
Introduced to Buddhism by the fifth Dalai Lama, the title literally means 'Lord of the refuge of Khalkha', Mongolia's largest district. Since then, the post has entailed the task of protecting the country and promoting its religious development, even if the recognitions occurred in Tibet.
After the founding of the Soviet Union, every form of religious activity was banned in Mongolia. The late Khalkha's predecessor went to Lhasa to join the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.
Rich Buddhists left Ulaan Baatar whilst the poor were put in a forced labour camp. Still, the late Khalkha was able to visit briefly Mongolia in 1942, during the Second World War.
After his return to Tibet, he chose the path of meditation, keeping in touch with the faithful who had survived Stalin's purges.
When Mao came to power and Tibet was occupied, he was forced to move again, to India this time.
With the Soviet Union collapsing, the Khalkha was able to return to Mongolia in 1989. Since then, he has actively been involved in the country's religious renaissance.
In 1997, the late Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa was enthroned as the spiritual head of the Jonang tradition, one of the tree expressions of Tibetan Buddhism.
Thanks to his work, 24 per cent of Mongolia's 2.7 million people are Buddhist.
The wounds of Stalinist rule are still visible and most Mongolians are agnostic despite centuries of Buddhist tradition and Christian influence.
The current government continues to discourage religious activities and has imposed restrictions and regulations on existing religions.
Christians constitute about 1 per cent of the population.