BY RON HUTCHESON AND TIM JOHNSON
BEIJING - President Bush was in church as usual on Sunday, but his routine act of worship carried special significance this week.
By kneeling in prayer in Beijing, Bush was standing up for religious freedom in a country where faith is often practiced in secret. His visit to Gangwashi Church - Sunday morning in Beijing, Saturday evening U.S. time - was a show of solidarity for the faithful and a nudge to Chinese leaders who refuse to let religion flourish unfettered.
Bush, who joined about 400 worshippers, made a plea for religious freedom after the hour-long service.
``My hope is that the government of China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly,'' he said. ``A healthy society is a society that welcomes all faiths and gives people a chance to express themselves through worship with the Almighty.''
Under the leadership of Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong, who once declared that "religion is poison," China ordered churches across the country closed during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. The ban ended in the late 1970s, but churches have to submit to government regulation.
Church leaders who refuse to bow to government authority risk arrest.
Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo, a leader in the underground Roman Catholic Church, was arrested Nov. 8 for the eighth time in the past two years. Another underground priest, Yang Jianwei, and 10 seminarians were detained four days later. Earlier this month, Cai Zhuohua, a Protestant pastor who lacks official sanction, was sentenced to three years in prison for printing and distributing Bibles and other religious books.
Some of the harshest repression is directed at adherents of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that the Chinese government considers a cult.
The issue is highly personal with Bush, who vowed to raise it in his meetings this weekend with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
"I will continue to remind President Hu about, for example, my personal faith and the belief that people should be allowed to worship freely," Bush told a group of Asian reporters in a White House interview last week.
By going to church, he sends a message without saying a word, although it's not likely that many Chinese will hear it. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended Palm Sunday services in Gangwashi earlier this year, but the state-run media ignored the visit.
Built by British missionaries in the 1920s, Gangwashi has become a symbol of religion's re-emergence in China since it's re-opening in 1980s. While the Protestant congregation meets with government approval, the church has sometimes run afoul of Chinese authorities.
Human rights groups say government officials forced out the head pastor in 1994 for seeking more independence and tolerating political dissidents in the congregation.
The dusty church is down an alley off a bustling street in west-central Beijing. Worship services generally bring a full house to the main worship hall and an adjacent room with television monitors. Old-style fluorescent lights hang overhead, and ushers set up stools in the aisles to accommodate worshippers who can't find a seat in the wooden pews.
After services on Saturday morning, several Christian faithful said they had no idea the U.S. president would attend services there.
"I heard from TV that President Bush was coming to China but I didn't know he was coming here," said Zhou Shuyun, a 51-year-old retiree.
Another worshipper, who identified herself only as Mrs. Cheng, was curious about the president's religious beliefs.
"Is Bush a Christian?" she asked.
Zhou said the church could barely handle the number of worshippers who attend services five times a week.
"Many young people are coming. I think God is preparing more young people to do His work," she said.
Organized religion seems to be increasingly popular throughout China, although believers are still a small minority. The State Department cited estimates that China has more than 200 million religious adherents in a country of 1.3 billion people.
The most popular religions are Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. Most of China's leaders are atheist because the religious affiliation is considered incompatible with Communist Party membership.
"I don't have religious faith," former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Hu's predecessor, said at a 2002 press conference with Bush. Jiang's lack of faith didn't deter Bush, who told the Chinese leader that religion had changed his life.
Chinese leaders, who are determined to maintain political control as they encourage economic freedom, view calls for religious liberty as meddling by outsiders. They are particularly wary of foreign support for Tibetan Buddhism and the leadership of the Dalai Lama, who was forced into exile to India in 1959.
Bush is likely to get the same response from Hu that he got from the last Chinese president.
"Whatever religion people believe in, they have to abide by the law," Jiang said. "Some of the law-breakers have been detained because of their violation of law, not because of their religious belief."