- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 20, 2005

BEIJING — President Bush took a front-row seat this morning in Gangwashi church, one of only five state-approved Protestant congregations in this city, to reinforce a message urging China to grant religious freedom.

“My hope is that the government of China will not fear the Christians who gather to worship openly,” Mr. Bush said after the hour-long service. “A healthy society is a society that welcomes all faiths and gives people a chance to express themselves through worship with the Almighty.”

The president signed the church’s guest book, writing: “May God bless the Christians of China.” First lady Laura Bush added, “And with love and respect.”

Mr. Bush later called on China to expand religious, political and social freedoms and urged steps to reduce Beijing’s huge trade surplus with the United States. President Hu Jintao promised steps to resolve economic frictions.

The two leaders conferred at the Great Hall of the People on the edge of Tiananmen Square, and Mr. Hu said they both sought an outcome of “mutual benefit and win-win results.”

There appeared to be no breakthroughs about U.S. demands for currency reforms in China.

The Chinese government tightly regulates religion and persecutes believers; it cracked down further on Catholics and underground churches in the days before Mr. Bush’s visit.

Christians in China routinely are beaten, imprisoned and even tortured for daring to meet or otherwise practice their faith in ways that are common in the United States.

Earlier this month, Cai Zhuohua, 34, a Beijing underground church leader, was sentenced to three years in prison for distributing Bibles and other Christian materials.

Pastors at Gangwashi church presented the president and first lady with Chinese Bibles.

Just a day before Mr. Bush arrived, authorities arrested a priest and 10 seminarians from China’s underground Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican said.

In March, a new law mandated severe reprisals for house churches that have not registered with the government.

The White House urged China’s state-controlled press not to censor news of Mr. Bush’s visit, which includes meetings and dinner with top leaders.

Aides said yesterday that the church visit was important for the president, a Methodist who reads the Bible daily and attends church nearly every Sunday.

“It’s Sunday, so the president will want to worship,” said Michael Green, his special assistant for national security affairs. “But it’s also important that the world see and that the Chinese people see that expression of faith is a good thing for a healthy and mature society.”

Mr. Bush made the worship service his first public event during a two-day state visit to China. The significance of his stop at the church, a modest marble-and-brick building tucked off an alley, was clear to the congregation of about 400.

The president and first lady, joined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, received a standing ovation when they entered the church, which looked much like a classroom with wooden movie theater seats. The congregation applauded again when the pastor announced their presence.

The pastor, the Rev. Du Fengying, delivered a sermon in Chinese, translated into English.

“If we take three strikes and beyond that we can’t take it any more, as a Christian we should take it in,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we are weak, but are tolerating [each] other.”

The choir assembled outside to see the president off, singing “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

“The spirit of the Lord is very strong inside your church,” Mr. Bush said. “We thank you for carrying a message of love, like you did. … We really thank you for letting us come by, and we ask for God’s blessing.”

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