Chinese Christians step out of shadows for Bush

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Outside the church, one of five officially recognised protestant places of worship in Beijing, hundreds of riot police cordoned off the area yesterday, while plain-clothes officers circulated in the curious crowd.

But inside, the choir sang "Joyful, joyful, we adore thee" in the Bush's honour and, after the service, the pastor presented the President and First Lady with Chinese bibles. "May God bless the Christians of China," the President wrote in the church's visitors book.

For President Bush, a born-again Christian whose core constituency in the US is the religious right, pressing his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao on the need for greater religious freedom has been one of the most important aspects of his forty hour visit to China. "My hope is that the government of China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly," said Mr Bush as he left the Gangwashi church.

But there is little sign that China's leaders are listening.

The between 40 and 80 million Chinese Christians routinely face religious persecution. Earlier this month, the protestant minister Cai Zhuohua, his wife and brother were sentenced to three years in jail for printing bibles without the permission of the authorities, while when the catholic Bishop Xie Shiguang died in August, he had spent 28 of his 88 years in prison.

China's constitution protects freedom of belief, but the government fears religious groups provide a focus for protests against the authorities and only allows worshippers, whether Christian, Muslim or Tibetan Buddhists, to attend officially sanctioned venues run by clergy who have been vetted by the government. Even then, they are subject to suspicion and harassment.

Last month's annual report by the US Congress's Executive Commission on China cited "increased government restrictions on Chinese citizens who worship in state-controlled venues".

Many of China's Christians though, have turned their back on the state-run churches. China set up the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 1957, six years after Beijing cut off diplomatic ties with the Vatican, but the majority of the country's 12 million Catholics continue to recognise the Pope as their spiritual leader and risk arrest when they attend underground services in apartments and houses.

Attempts by the Vatican to re-establish relations with China have been stepped up since Benedict XVI became Pope this April.

But Beijing continues to insist that the Holy See sever its diplomatic ties with Taiwan and allow them to appoint bishops on the mainland. In September, the government refused to allow four catholic bishops to attend a conference in Rome.

The estimated 35 million Muslims in China, and in particular the ethnic minority Uighurs, face more rigorous persecution. In the far western province of Xinjiang, where they are a majority, Uighurs have been prevented from fasting during Ramadan and growing beards, there are restrictions on the number of mosques in the region and religious schools are banned.

China has flooded Xinjiang with Han Chinese settlers in an effort to secularise the region, just as it has in Tibet. This though, has had the effect of driving formerly moderate Muslims into the arms of Islamic fundamentalists. But with 15 Uighurs being held in Guantanamo Bay, after being captured by US forces in Afghanistan, Beijing knows that President Bush will stay silent on the fate of China's Muslims.