updated 11/18/2009 3:52:36 PM ET 2009-11-18T20:52:36

The Dalai Lama said Wednesday there will be a setback in the Tibetan cause when he dies, but that he has faith in the next generation of his followers.

The 74-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate has now spent 50 birthdays in India, where he heads a government in exile. His hectic globe-trotting has been interrupted by a series of minor health issues, including two bouts of exhaustion. As he gets older, there are concerns about who will lead the Tibetan exiles and push for their cause for freedom after his death.

"At the time of my death of course there will be a setback. There's no doubt," the Dalai Lama said at a news conference following his appearance at the 5th World Parliamentarians Convention on Tibet in Rome. But, he added, a very healthy, cultivated new generation is rising with the potential to lead the cause.

The convention also was attended by actor Richard Gere, a Buddhist who has been active in the movement to free Tibet.

Beijing derides the Dalai Lama as a "splittist," saying he really wants a Tibetan nation. For years, talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama's envoys have ended in stalemate.

Traditionally, the Dalai Lama's successor is a boy born after his death, chosen by Buddhist monks who believe the child is his reincarnation. This means that decades may pass before the new Dalai Lama is ready to assume the leadership and emerge as the public voice for the next generation of Tibetans in their struggle for freedom from China.

The Dalai Lama has said his successor could be appointed before his death or chosen through democratic elections. He also has said the next Dalai Lama could be reincarnated in exile.

The Chinese government, which is officially atheist, requires all Tibetan spiritual leaders to receive approval from Beijing.

Fears that China will appoint a new Dalai Lama after his death have led Tibetan leaders to contemplate ideas that break with the centuries-old system of choosing a child believed to be the reincarnation of the deceased spiritual leader. Among the suggestions have been doing away with Dalai Lamas altogether or naming a successor before the current leader dies.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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