Monday, 11 August 2008
President Bush Focuses on Religious Freedom in Beijing
U.S. President George W. Bush on Sunday worshipped at a Beijing church as part of his effort to press for wider religious freedom in China and met the country's Communist leaders for what he promised would be "candid" talks.
Bush, in China for the Olympic Games, met Hu Jintao for a private talk. The U.S. president has repeatedly said he talks frankly about human rights as well as freedom of speech and religion in China."I enjoy our conversations ... our relationship is constructive and it's important and also very candid," Bush said at the start of their talks at the sprawling Zhongnanhai compound, hours after the service at one of the government-sanctioned churches."I had a very uplifting experience going to a church," he said and thanked Hu for helping to arrange the visit."I feel very strongly about religion," Bush added, calling the church visit a "spirit-filled feeling".
Bush's trip to Beijing has been a delicate balancing act, where he has depicted himself as just another sports fan at the Olympics–seeing swimmer Michael Phelps win gold–while nudging China to improve its internationally criticized record on human rights.Despite China's rejection of his prodding, Bush, a frequent churchgoer with a strong base among Christian fundamentalists, has made the appeals for greater religious liberties a focus of his efforts to coax China toward democratic reforms.
Bush declared outside the Kuanjie Protestant church that "it just goes to show that God is universal, God is love and no state, man or woman should fear the influence of loving religion".The service, almost entirely in Chinese but translated for Bush and his family, was held in a modest building with a plain white cross on the roof and included a children's choir performing "Amazing Grace" in English and Chinese.
Many other Christians, who make up only a small part of China's religious faithful, worship at so-called underground churches.
Many analysts see Bush's handling of China relations as a relative bright spot in a foreign policy record dominated by the unpopular war in Iraq.He needs China's help to curb North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions, thus limiting U.S. leverage to press for rapid political reforms of the one-party state. Washington is also mindful of Beijing's increasing economic clout.At the same time, rights advocates and leading lawmakers at home, some of whom had urged Bush to boycott the Games, have chided him for not speaking out more forcefully about the human rights situation in China and the crackdown on dissent in the run-up to the Olympics.
In between church and his meetings, Bush stopped by the Olympic swimming venue, dubbed the Water Cube, to see Phelps capture the gold medal in the 400 metres individual medley final and break his own world record."I looked up and saw President Bush giving me the thumbs up and holding the American flag. That was pretty cool," Phelps said.