(CNSNews.com) - President Bush ended a visit to China on Monday, making freedom to worship a dominant theme by putting a visit to church ahead of meetings with Chinese leaders.
The president and First Lady Laura Bush attended a morning service at one of Beijing's handful of state-sanctioned Protestant churches, Gangwashi, accompanied by a U.S. evangelist, Luis Palau.
"He wanted to set a framework for his discussions then about religious freedom and human rights with his Chinese counterparts," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of the visit.
The overwhelming majority of Chinese Christians belong to illegal churches - Protestant "house" churches or underground Catholic congregations loyal to the Pope.
The communist authorities only tolerate a "patriotic" Protestant organization, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), and a Catholic equivalent that does not recognize papal authority.
The Gangwashi Church falls under the TSPM, and is reported to be one of only five such churches allowed in the Chinese capital, a city of almost 11 million people. A 2004 survey cited by the State Department says that there are 30,000 registered Protestants in Beijing, but more than 100,000 others who are illegal.
Nonethless, presidential advisor Mike Green earlier defended the decision to attend that particular congregation.
"The church where he will worship is a church that is often called a state-sponsored church, but it's a real church and people really do worship," he told reporters. "The parishioners are real people of faith who are congregating to express that faith."
Previous high-level American visitors to Gangwashi include President George H.W. Bush and Rice, who attended a Palm Sunday service there this year.
Bush made it clear when speaking outside after the service that he had found the worship genuine.
"The spirit of the Lord is very strong inside your church," he told pastor Du Fengying, whose sermon he had listened to via a translation headset.
Bush also suggested that such openings that exist in China should be welcomed. "It wasn't all that long ago that people were not allowed to worship openly in this society."
But, he added, "My hope is that the government of China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly. A healthy society is a society that welcomes all faiths, and gives people a chance to express themselves through worship with the Almighty."
Last week, in a speech in Japan, Bush urged China to allow its people the right "to worship without state control and to print Bibles and other sacred texts without fear of punishment."
Bibles are legal in China, but their printing is restricted. Palau says a Nanjing-based publishing firm has been allowed to print 35 million Bibles in recent years.
But with estimates of more than 100 million Christians in China, the number is clearly inadequate.
Two weeks ago, a court in Beijing jailed Protestant church leader Cai Zhuohua for three years and imposed a $20,000 fine for illegally printing Bibles and other Christian literature.
The TSPM's name comes from the belief that the church should resist outside influences - the three "selfs" are self-governance, self-support and self-propagation.
In a major report on Protestantism in China published several years ago, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said the TSPM is sometimes used as "an agent of persecution" against underground Protestant Christians.
Christians attending "house" churches gave as their key reason for remaining independent "the strongly held belief that Christ is the head of the church and that this position cannot be usurped by a secular power."
While there were "good people and churches with the TSPM," there were also serious flaws, CSW said.
"It has to operate under limitations affecting how it can preach, who can preach and where they can preach."
In 1994, the head of the Gangwashi Church, Yang Yudong, was escorted from his church by police and the authorities appointed another pastor. Human rights groups said at the time that the 73-year-old Yang had been accused of tolerating dissidents and trying to exert his independence of the TSPM.
In a new report, released last week, CSW said the last six months have seen a notable increase in reports of religious persecution against unregistered Protestant Christians in China.
"Punishments include imprisonment, torture, humiliating treatment, fines, welfare deductions, withholding of medical treatment, church and business closures and confiscation of valuables and religious materials."
Campaigners for religious freedom say Protestants aren't alone, charging that China also persecutes Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Falun Gong adherents and others.
China is one of eight nations designated "countries of particular concern" under the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act. It has been on the list every year since 1999, when it was initiated.
Before arriving in China, Bush was urged by rights groups to bring up the issue in face-to-face talks with his hosts.
He did so later on Sunday, telling reporters after his meeting with President Hu Jintao that he had raised "both political and religious freedom."
He had spoken about people who "we believe are improperly imprisoned," urged Beijing to hold talks with Vatican leaders on religious freedom, and to discuss the future of Tibet - occupied by China since 1950 - with the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama.
In formal comments made at the Great Hall of the People, Hu asserted that China had made notable progress in developing "a democratic political system and human rights."
"The Chinese people are exercising their right of democratic elections, democratic decision-making, democratic management, and democratic supervision, according to law."
But, he added, the government would continue taking into account China's "national conditions" and "build democratic politics with Chinese characteristics."
Responding to Hu's remarks, Bush said: "It is important that social, political and religious freedoms grow in China. And we encourage China to continue making the historic transition to greater freedom."
During Bush's stay in Beijing, he also discussed currency reform and trade, with Hu undertaking publicly to work on easing a $200 billion annual trade surplus.
Their agenda included protection of intellectual property rights - software and movie piracy is widespread in China - the North Korean nuclear standoff, the China-Taiwan dispute, and avian flu.
Bush on Monday paid a brief visit to Mongolia - the first-ever by a sitting American president to the sparsely-populated, landlocked former communist nation - before returning to Washington.
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