WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama praised the Dalai Lama Thursday at a high-profile Washington breakfast, but did not hold a formal meeting with him, avoiding further tensions with China.

Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast, a gathering of political and religious leaders, drew some 3,600 U.S. and international leaders and criticism from China, which considers the Dalai Lama a separatist because of his quest for greater Tibetan autonomy. Outside the hotel, hundreds of protesters gathered waving Tibetan flags.

Obama offered a special welcome to a "good friend," the Dalia Lama, seated at a table in front of the dais among the audience of 3,600. Earlier Obama, seated at the head table, pressed his hands together in a prayer-like position and bowed his head toward the Dalai Lama, then gave him a wave and a broad smile.

The president called the Buddhist spiritual leader a "powerful example of what it means to practice compassion."

It was the first time the president and the Tibetan Buddhist leader attended the same public event, with China objecting to foreign leaders meeting with the Dalai Lama because of his quest for greater Tibetan autonomy from Beijing. Obama's three previous meetings with the Dalai Lama have been private because of the sensitivity of the situation.

In a show of White House support for the Dalai Lama, he was seated at a table with Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's closest adviser. Actor Richard Gere, a friend and follower of the Dalai Lama, was also nearby.

The president departed the prayer breakfast without appearing to have any direct interaction with the Dalai Lama. His motorcade sped past hundreds of demonstrators beating drums and waving Tibetan flags under a heavy police presence.

The Dalai Lama, wrapping up a three-day visit to Washington, plans to speak later Thursday at a dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims on peaceful coexistence. Also expected are prominent American Muslims and a representative of Iraq's most prominent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

China protested each of Obama's three meetings with the Dalai Lama, which were always held privately without any news coverage because of the sensitivity of the encounter. But President George W. Bush ignored furious Chinese objections when he presented the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal at the Capitol Rotunda in 2007.

China warned once again that it would strongly oppose any country's leader meeting with the Dalai Lama, who fled to exile in India after a failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, and regard it as interference in China's internal affairs.

Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.