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Don't fear religion, Bush tells China

world Updated: Aug 10, 2008 16:41 IST
Don't fear religion

US President George W. Bush urged China's leaders not to be afraid of religious freedom as he attended a church service in Beijing on Sunday and held talks with Chinese leader Hu Jintao.

It is a point the US leader has repeated for several days during his trip to the Chinese capital for the opening of the Olympic Games, a visit he has promised would not be used to politicise China's moment on the world stage.

But a beaming Bush emerged from the Kuanjie Protestant church with his arms around fellow smiling worshippers and told the throng of waiting reporters and on-lookers that religion was nothing for China to be afraid of.

"Laura and I just had the great joy and privilege of worshipping here in Beijing," Bush said.

"You know, it just goes to show that God is universal and God is love, and no state, man or woman should fear the influence of loving religion."

Bush later alluded to a moment "full of spirituality" in the church when he appeared very briefly before the media with Hu before the two leaders retired for lunch and more private talks.

The US president has often credited faith for helping him overcome his struggle with alcohol, and US leaders have often raised the issue of religion when talking about what they have seen as flaws in the Chinese system.

China's officially atheist communist rulers strictly suppressed religion for three decades after coming to power in 1949.

The following 30 years have seen a flourishing of many forms of religion, but the government continues to maintain tight controls, fearful of the potential challenge to its rule from any kind of large organisation.

Believers are meant to attend only state-sanctioned churches, such as Kuanjie.

Bush raised the religion issue for the first time during this trip one day before arriving for Friday's opening of the Games, using a major speech in Thailand to take China to task over its record on human rights.

"America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents and human rights advocates and religious activists," he said.

"We press for openness and justice, not to impose our beliefs but to allow the Chinese people to express theirs."

In his weekly US radio address on Saturday, he said: "This trip has reaffirmed my belief that men and women who aspire to speak their conscience and worship their God are no threat to the future of China."

The president has been treading a delicate diplomatic line over the past month as he navigated between calls from rights groups for a tough stance on China and Beijing's insistence the Games should not be about politics.

The White House has already protested at China's treatment of international activists who are pressing Beijing to exert its influence over Sudan to end the conflict in Darfur.

By choosing to worship with several dozen Christians at the austere Kuanjie church, where he heard a children's choir sing "Amazing Grace" in English and Chinese, Bush again walked a fine line around controversy.

While he risked upsetting his hosts with an outward display of religion, Amnesty International criticised the US leader for choosing to worship at a state-controlled establishment rather than one of the underground churches which are frequently persecuted by the authorities.

Bush attended the spectacular Olympic opening ceremony Friday, and apart from the low key meeting with Hu his visit is intended to be mainly a private family affair.

On Sunday Bush cheered on US swimming superstar Michael Phelps to a first gold medal inside the futuristic "Water Cube". He was due to watch the heavyweight China-US basketball clash later in the day.

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