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Bush mixes sports and politics at Olympics

Aug. 10, 2008, 11:59 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) U.S. President George W. Bush pressed his Olympic hosts Sunday to permit greater political and religious freedom, warning Chinese leaders they can expect to hear similar blunt talk from his successor.

In an Olympic medley of sports and politics, Bush also cheered from the stands as U.S. athletes launched their hunt for gold, while behind the scenes he and aides appealed to Russia to halt what the White House called "dangerous and disproportionate" attacks on Georgia, a staunch U.S. ally.

The president worshipped at a Beijing church and declared China has nothing to fear from expressions of faith. Later, he met with Chinese leaders and again voiced concern about the jailing of dissidents and religious activists, aides reported.

"As you know, I feel very strongly about religion," he told President Hu Jintao in a meeting at the Zhongnanhai government compound while reporters were present.

After they were ushered out, Bush told Hu that human rights concerns are a key part of the U.S.-China dialog, and "the Chinese can expect that any future American president will also make it an important aspect," said adviser Dennis Wilder, who accompanied Bush. But Bush did not raise specific cases of dissidents.

At the same time, Bush praised his hosts for their swift response to a stabbing attack that killed the father of a 2004 U.S. Olympian. "Your government has been very attentive, very sympathetic, and I appreciate that a lot," Bush said.

Todd Bachman, the father of Olympic volleyball player Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman, was killed Saturday and his wife Barbara was gravely injured as they toured Beijing's 13th-century Drum Tower. The Bachmans of Lakeville, Minnesota, are in-laws of U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon.

The assailant, identified as Tang Yongming, 47, jumped to his death. The motive for the attack, which also left a tour guide wounded, remained unclear, though officials doubt Tang knew the Bachmans.

Bush also discussed with Hu efforts to verify North Korea's scrapping of its nuclear program. Bush has pledged to remove North Korea from the U.S. terrorism blacklist if a verification accord can be reached; Monday was the earliest that could take place. But talks have dragged on. "Tomorrow probably will come and go without that happening," Wilder reported.

Outside his meetings with Chinese leaders, Bush joined the effort to halt clashes between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The conflict erupted Friday when Georgian troops moved to retake control of South Ossetia, a region bordering Russia that gained de facto independence in 1992.

The Bush administration has expressed concern that the attacks were occurring in regions of Georgia that were far from the zone of conflict in South Ossetia.

Jim Jeffrey, Bush's deputy national security adviser, said the U.S. has made it clear: "If the disproportionate and dangerous escalation on the Russian side continues, that this will have a significant long-term impact on U.S.-Russian relations."

Bush discussed the widening crisis by phone with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, current president of the European Union. The two agree "across the board" on the need for a cease-fire, disengagement and "respect for Georgian territorial integrity," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Despite his official duties, Bush has made clear his main role at the Olympics was as America's First Fan.

Sunday was a U.S. sports fan's dream.

Bush and first lady Laura Bush, daughter Barbara and former President George H.W. Bush cheered from the stands of the Water Cube Olympic swimming venue as American Michael Phelps claimed the first of an expected string of gold medals by smashing his own world record in the 400-meter individual medley.

"God, what a thrill to cheer for you!" Bush told Phelps afterward.

Phelps told reporters he looked up at Bush just moments after winning, and the president nodded.

"That was a pretty cool feeling," he said.

The president also took in the U.S.-China men's basketball game, one of the hottest tickets. Before the contest, he huddled with U.S. players in a corridor of the Olympic arena, putting his hand in with theirs and joining in a cheer, "One, two, three, U.S.A, go!"

The Bush family posed for pictures with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and other NBA stars. Spying Bush's father, James sidled up to say, "What's up pops?"

Bush's Sunday began with a worship service at Beijing's Kuan Jie church, an officially registered Protestant congregation. A children's choir sang "Amazing Grace" in English and Chinese, but the service was mostly in Chinese. Aides said Bush was helped by a translator.

He exited to the strains of "Onward Christian Soldiers." Speaking to reporters in a driving rain, he alluded to the millions of Chinese who brave harassment and arrest to worship at unregistered "house" churches.

"It just goes to show that God is universal," Bush said. "No state, man or woman should fear the influence of loving religion."

Speaking in Bangkok on the eve of the Olympics and again at Friday's dedication of a U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Bush insisted China can only reach its full potential by allowing free speech and other freedoms.

Those words and his church visit, which followed a 2005 visit to another official Beijing church, were carefully calibrated to prod the Chinese while deflecting attacks from human rights groups who say Bush's Olympic sojourn lends legitimacy to a repressive Communist government.