- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

BEIJING | President Bush continued his Olympics juggling act on Sunday, settling for a pointed remark in public to push for wider religious freedom in China and raising further political concerns privately with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Standing on the rain-splattered steps of the state-sanctioned Beijing Kuanjie Protestant Christian Church after attending an early morning service, Mr. Bush said it was “a joy and a privilege” to worship in the Chinese capital, as he did in 2005.

“It just goes to show that God is universal. No state, man or woman should fear the influence of loving religion,” he declared, alluding to the strict controls the Communist Party imposes on religion, while taking care not to embarrass his hosts - or the church pastor he encircled with his arm - with explicit criticism.

Later, at Zhongnanhai, the Chinese government’s residential compound, Mr. Bush returned to the topic, telling Mr. Hu, in front of reporters: “As you know, I feel very strongly about religion, and I am so appreciative of the chance to go to church here in your society.”

Behind closed doors, Mr. Bush pursued the issue of human rights abuses once again, a subject on which he talked at length in Bangkok just ahead of his departure to Beijing on Thursday, much to the irritation of the Chinese leadership.

He said human rights concerns are a key part of the U.S.-China dialogue, and “the Chinese can expect that any future American president will also make it an important aspect,” the Associated Press reported, citing Bush adviser Dennis Wilder.

Mr. Wilder said Mr. Bush did not raise specific cases of dissidents.

Mr. Bush then discussed with Mr. Hu efforts to verify North Korea’s dismantling of its nuclear program as other, more immediate security matters continued to vex both leaders.

Throughout the day, Mr. Bush and his aides deliberated over how to approach the escalating conflict between Russia and Georgia.

Meanwhile in Kuqa, a town in Xinjiang in China’s far Western province, eight men were killed in clashes between police and purported terrorists during attacks on government offices in the early hours of Sunday, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Mr. Bush thanked Mr. Hu for the Chinese government’s quick response to the stabbing Saturday of two Americans: the in-laws of U.S. men’s volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon and parents of 2004 U.S. Olympic volleyball player Elisabeth Bachman.

Todd Bachman was killed and his wife, Barbara, was seriously injured while visiting Beijing’s 13th-century Drum Tower.

“Your government has been very attentive, very sympathetic, and I appreciate that a lot,” Mr. Bush said.

The most contentious issue of the day was Mr. Bush’s visit to a government-approved church. Human rights and religious groups argued that Mr. Bush was endorsing the Communist Party’s regulation of worship in China.

Kuanjie church, a plain two-story building just north of the Forbidden City, with a white cross on top and a gold-plated sign that was bought especially for the occasion, is part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government-run organization to which all registered Protestant churches in China belong.

But many Chinese Christians worship in unofficial “house” churches that lie outside the authority of the Communist Party and are deemed illegal as they operate without licenses.

In sporadic operations, police and officials break up house churches and other illegal Christian groups.

China Aid Association, a Texas-based Christian rights organization, reported last week that police in central Henan province had detained pastor Zhang Mingxuan, head of the underground House Church Alliance, his wife and another pastor as part of a pre-Olympics crackdown.

Aides to Mr. Bush said in previous reports that the Chinese authorities flatly denied the president’s request to visit a house church instead of the official Kuanjie church.

China has insisted that Kuanjie church has incorporated several house churches into its ranks in a sign that the Communist Party is relaxing its policy on unofficial prayer.

Yet China Aid Association dismissed the claim as a “misleading and deceptive ploy used by China to deceive the international community into believing the [Communist Party of China] is no longer persecuting Christians.”

It says the Communist Party has sanctioned “house cells,” led by pastors who have been trained and appointed by the government, that have merely been given permission to meet outside of official church buildings.

Speaking after Mr. Bush’s visit, the pastor of Kuanjie church, Li Jian’an, said his church had strong links with house churches, stressing, “We are all one family under God.

“The house churches need time. One day the Lord will show the way to all people who worship Him. We hope we will have more communication and connections with our brothers and sisters in the house churches,” he told The Washington Times.

Mr. Bush was joined in prayer by a 500-strong congregation who had been issued red paper tickets approved by the Public Security Bureau, a caretaker at Kuanjie church said. The Sunday congregation normally swells to more than 1,000.

A children’s choir sang “Amazing Grace” and “Edelweiss” in English, which Mr. Bush described as a “touching moment.” Mr. Bush left the church to the notes of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Cathy Yang, who usually attends a house church for about 80 people, was clutching a book titled “A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush.”

She had hoped the presidential signature would adorn her book copy, but she never even caught a glimpse of Mr. Bush. She was one of 100 on the second floor of the church, watching the service by video link.

“In a house church, we spend more time discussing spiritual things. In the public church, it is more about listening to speeches. It’s still good, but it’s different,” she said.

Her friend, who would give her English name only as Holly, was disappointed not to see Mr. Bush. She said she was also a house-church regular.

“A connection with God is very important, and I feel I have a stronger connection with God in a house church,” she said. “You have to choose whatever suits you. Public churches are not everyone’s thing.”

The main road outside the church was packed with ticketless churchgoers braving torrential rain and waiting for their turn to worship as soon as Mr. Bush’s motorcade had exited the side street where Kuanjie church is located.

One man, who declined to be named, ranted as he huddled under the canopy of a small store.

“This is awful. We common people are standing here in the rain for our normal service at nine o’clock. But we can’t get in because the church is full of security people,” he said.

Nevertheless, camera ready in hand, he snapped excitedly at the sight of the passing motorcade.

China Aid Association said most of Kuanjie’s regular worshippers were left out in the cold. “Most people President Bush and the overseas media will meet in the church are security people, political workers and people trained by them to pose as believers,” it said, quoting anonymous sources.

Mr. Li said the congregation comprised regular worshippers at the church.

“This was a very special meeting for the church,” he said, before acknowledging that he was relieved Mr. Bush didn’t talk at length about religious freedom outside the church, given the large Chinese government security presence watching.

“I don’t think that would have been too friendly for us,” he said with a nervous giggle.

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