Bush juggles sports, strife on Olympic whirlwind

Aug. 10, 2008, 2:06 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) President 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 received regular updates on the military standoff between Russia and Georgia, a former Soviet state. And 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.

"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," he said, exiting the church to the strains of "Onward Christian Soldiers."

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

Still, Bush raised the issue again when he met later with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

"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 how China represses free expression. The two leaders also were to talk privately about counterterrorism, trade, economic markets and efforts to halt the nuclear weapons capability of Iran and North Korea.

Hu noted that Bush was making his fourth visit to China, more than any American president.

"This is a good testament to the importance you place on U.S. relations with China," Hu said.

Bush began his day at the Protestant church, entering the sanctuary 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.

A choir of boys and girls wearing white shirts and Jesus fish pins performed "Amazing Grace" in English and Chinese. The children were gathered around Bush as he spoke to reporters outside in the rain.

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, 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 wife, father and daughter went to greet the swim team.

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

Hu also brought up Phelps' performance before he and Bush 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.

While he came to Beijing mainly to have fun at the Olympics, Bush 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. appraised.