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Bush’s visit to church in China applauded by Baptist leader

WASHINGTON (BP)–Southern Baptist church-state specialist Richard Land commended President Bush for his attendance at a church service and his promotion of religious liberty while he was in China.

Bush and his wife, Laura, attended Beijing’s Gangwashi Church, a congregation registered with the Chinese government, during a morning worship service Nov. 20.

Outside the church building afterward, Bush said, “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.”

The president signed the church’s guest book, “May God bless the Christians of China, George Bush,” according to The Dallas Morning News.

Later in the day, the president told reporters he had talked to Chinese leaders about both religious and political freedom. “A society which recognizes religious freedom is a society which will recognize political freedoms, as well,” he said.

Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press he is “delighted the president chose to highlight the cause of religious freedom while he was in China. He has done this before, and it does help to keep the issue on the front burner both in world opinion and with Chinese government officials.”

Land’s August visit to China and recent crackdowns on Christian leaders demonstrate how limited religious freedom is in the world’s most populous country under a communist regime. Land and six other members of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom spent 15 days in China. The bipartisan panel reported repression continues of unapproved religious groups and urged the U.S. government to take a variety of steps to influence reform by the Beijing government.

“While it is clear that more space has been created for religious expression than previously existed in China or ever existed in the Soviet Union, it is also true that there is still significant government control,” Land said. “What China has is limited toleration of religious expression through registered churches, which are strictly regulated and monitored.

“This is why perhaps as many as five times as many Christians choose to worship in unregistered venues, even with the constant threat of arrest and persecution, than worship in registered venues,” he said. “I’m sure the president chose to worship in a registered church setting for the same reason that our commission chose not to meet with members of the underground and unregistered church, i.e., it would expose the underground church and Christians to possible retaliation from the government after the American officials had returned home.”

China oppresses not only Protestants in underground churches but unregistered Roman Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and the Falun Gong, a meditation sect, the USCIRF has reported.

The government also places restrictions upon registered churches, including limitations on what can be taught and preached. The USCIRF has reported that leaders of registered churches in some regions have been forced to denounce the Falun Gong or support government rules.

In one of the more recent examples of repression of Christians, Cai Zhuohua, 34, leader of an underground Beijing church, was sentenced to three years in prison for printing Bibles illegally, Reuters News Service reported. His wife, Xiao Yunfei, and her brother, Xiao Gaowen, were given two-year and 18-month sentences, respectively, by a Chinese court, according to Reuters.

Bush was in China Nov. 19-21 as part of a trip to the Far East.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist named Land in July to the nine-member USCIRF. Land served on the panel from 2001-04 as an appointee by Bush.

The USCIRF advises the White House and Congress on the condition of religious liberty in other countries. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six.