Bush: No one should fear religious freedom

Aug. 10, 2008, 2:11 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) U.S. President George W. Bush juggled sports, strife and diplomacy Sunday on his whirlwind Olympic adventure, a trip marred by an attack on an American couple and their tour guide.

In a clear reference to China's tight control of religion, Bush emerged from a church service saying no country should "fear the influence" of freedom of worship. He also was getting regular updates on the military standoff between Russia and Georgia, a former Soviet state. Switching from leader to Olympics fan, Bush watched as Michael Phelps won the gold in the 400-meter individual medley.

Bush's comments after worshipping with first lady Laura Bush came with added punch as he delivered them in the heart of the Chinese capital during Beijing's Olympic spotlight.

"Laura and I just had the great joy and privilege of worshipping here in Beijing, China," he said as parishioners exited to "Onward Christian Soldiers." ''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, who earlier promised to continue pushing China during meetings with the country's leadership to let its people speak and pray freely without harassment, briefly brought up the issue before meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Among the other expected topics of discussion in their ensuing private talks were counterterrorism, trade, economic markets, individual freedoms and efforts to halt the nuclear weapons capability of Iran and North Korea. No major announcements were anticipated.

"Once again, I had a very uplifting experience going to a church," Bush told Hu. "It was a spirit-filled feeling. As you know, I feel very strongly about religion. And I'm so appreciative of the chance to go to church here."

But the mood was light for the photo opportunity, and there was no other mention of their countries' simmering dispute over China's handling of free expression.

China allows worship only in officially approved churches such as the one Bush visited with his wife, so millions of people pray privately in house churches to avoid detection. The Chinese government has bristled at Bush's prodding as pointless meddling.

Bush spoke of the great joy he felt while worshipping in the church, where a choir of boys and girls wearing white shirts and Jesus fish pins performed "Amazing Grace" in English and Chinese.

Bush entered the Protestant church to sustained applause. The service was delivered nearly entirely in Chinese, but Bush followed along and bowed his head in prayer with a couple hundred other worshippers. His father, former President George H.W. Bush, and the president's daughter, Barbara, also attended the service, which was closely monitored by Chinese security officers wearing earphones.

After church, Bush went to the Water Cube and watched as Michael Phelps set a world record to win his first gold medal of the Olympics, beating rival Ryan Lochte in the 400-meter individual medley. Phelps is trying to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals.

After his victory, Phelps pumped both arms in the air, and quickly spotted his mother and two sisters in the massive stands at the Water Cube. He then looked the other way, where Bush, accompanied by the first lady, their daughter Barbara and his father, former President George H. W. Bush, was waving an American flag.

"I looked up and he waved the flag and nodded his head," Phelps said. "That was a pretty cool feeling to have the president say congratulations and have him in the crowd."

Afterward, Bush, his father, Laura and Barbara went to greet the swim team, including Phelps.

"God what a thrill to cheer for you!" he told Phelps.

President Hu brought up Phelps' performance with Bush before they sat down for closed-door talks.

"I know you came here from the swimming center and would like to offer you my congratulations on the excellent performance of Mr. Phelps," Hu said.

Bush laughed and thanked the Chinese leader.

Bush, who came to Beijing mainly to have fun at the Olympics, has found himself immersed in a conflict involving Russia, China's neighbor. A grim and blunt president on Saturday upbraided Moscow over its escalating standoff with Georgia. Bush questioned attacks in parts of Georgia away from South Ossetia, the breakaway province at the center of the fight. He pushed Russia to embrace an international mediation effort by the United States and its European allies.

"The violence is endangering regional peace," Bush said.

His Saturday schedule juxtaposed moments light and somber, sometimes jarringly so.

He took a rigorous ride on the Olympic mountain biking course, had a try at beach volleyball and laughed it up with members of the U.S. women's softball team. The president enjoyed the sweat-soaked experience of hanging out with athletes in an unscripted way.

Later came the news that a Chinese man had stabbed the in-laws of the U.S. Olympic men's volleyball coach, killing one and injuring the other, and stabbed a tour guide, too. The assailant committed suicide by jumping from the tourist site the Americans were visiting. Bush spoke out on the violent act too, expressing sadness about the stabbing.

Bush praised Hu for responding with speed and sympathy to the attack.

"I appreciate that a lot," Bush told Hu.

Hu expressed "profound sympathy" to Bush and the family members of the victims, saying his government takes the attack "very seriously." He said the Chinese have launched an investigation and pledged to keep the U.S. apprised.

Bush and Hu met just one month ago, at the summit in Japan of the world's economic powers. Standing together, Bush told reporters at the time that he and Hu "have constantly had discussions about human rights and political freedom. He knows my position."

Just in case, Bush has kept on it through his weeklong Asia trip.

In Thailand, Bush said the U.S. firmly opposes China's crackdown on political dissidents and human rights activists. The speech angered China's government, which responded by telling Bush not to intrude in its affairs.

"Only China can decide what course it will follow, but I'm optimistic about the prospects," Bush said in his radio address Saturday, taped in Beijing. "Young people who grow up with freedom in one area of their lives will ultimately demand freedom in other areas."