President Bush urged the Chinese government to expand religious freedoms and attended church here Sunday amid reports that a religious dissident was detained trying to attend the service.
In a full day, the president also met with three top Chinese leaders and attended two sports events at the Olympic Games.
“Laura and I just had the great joy and privilege of worshiping here in Beijing, China,” Bush told reporters outside Beijing Kuanjie Protestant Christian Church, an “official church” under Communist Party control. “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.”
A few hours later, after meetings with President Hu Jintao, Bush came away with the impression that China was willing to give way on religion and that “in the future there will be more room for religious believers,” Dennis Wilder, senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council, told reporters.
“He reiterated today is that we aren’t trying to impose something Western on China, that this is something that naturally develops in a society as it matures,” Wilder said.
Bush also stressed the importance of not linking religious groups with terrorism, he said.
Religious freedom has consistently been a top human rights issue in the Bush administration’s dealings with China.
Bush’s call for a more open policy was punctuated by a report that Hua Huiqi, a housing activist and member of an underground church, and his brother Hua Hulin were stopped when trying to attend the service at Kuanjie church.
Hua Hulin told the Associated Press that he was released first and that his brother eventually escaped police custody after officers took away his Bible and cellphone. It was not immediately clear how he got away.
“While I can’t confirm this specific report, we’re disappointed any time that someone is unable to worship freely,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Bob Fu, head of China Aid Assn., said the fact that China wouldn’t let Bush visit a church not sanctioned by the government shows how little religious freedom it is willing to tolerate. “It sends a very chilling message,” he said. Fu met with Bush in the White House in late July.
Bush on Sunday thanked the Chinese for their work investigating the attack on the parents of a former U.S. Olympic volleyball player. Todd Bachman died Saturday and Barbara Bachman remained in serious condition Sunday after an eight-hour surgery to treat stab wounds. Their Chinese tour guide was also wounded.
Police said Sunday that the attacker, who subsequently committed suicide, was distraught over family problems but didn’t seem to be targeting Americans or people linked to the Games. Security at tourist sites in Beijing was being strengthened, officials said.
Bush mixed it up Sunday, watching American swimmer Michael Phelps win his first gold medal in the morning and the U.S. basketball team defeat China in the evening.
This followed a surprise visit Saturday to a beach volleyball event in which he practiced with the bikini-clad athletes. At one point, he playfully tapped Misty May-Treanor on the small of her back after she offered to let him pat her bottom, a customary form of encouragement in some sports.
Chinese analysts said the mix of casual activity and serious diplomacy wouldn’t go over well for Chinese leaders, who tend to be more distant and serious.
“The different behavior of Chinese and American leaders reflects a different culture,” said Mei Renyi, director of the American Studies Center at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “It would be taken as frivolous in China but is taken as genuine in America.”
Bush has walked a fine line with this visit, analysts said. Even as he’s tried to give China “face” by attending the Olympics, he’s made several speeches criticizing Beijing in a bid to blunt charges back home that he is soft-pedaling Chinese human rights abuses.
“He’s taking a huge risk” with China, Minxin Pei, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said of the Bush speeches. “All the goodwill could dissipate.”
Bush and Hu discussed the conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia, the importance of six-nation talks in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Iran’s nuclear program and Taiwan, administration officials said.
Now that the Olympics are well underway, China probably will do everything it can to keep the focus off serious issues and on sports, analysts added.
“They don’t want to spoil the party with serious content issues,” Pei said. “It’s like a wedding where, rather than talking about how beautiful the bride and groom are, you say they owe you money.”
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report from Washington.