BEIJING - President Bush juggled sports, strife and diplomacy Sunday on his whirlwind Olympic adventure.
In a clear reference to China's tight control of churches, Bush emerged from a church service saying no country should "fear the influence" of religious freedom. Switching from leader to Olympics fan, Bush watched as Michael Phelps won the gold in the 400-meter individual medley.
He has been monitoring the military standoff between Russia and Georgia, a former Soviet state. And in an upcoming meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Bush promised to continue pushing China to let its people speak and pray freely without harassment. China says that is a matter it can handle without outside interference.
"Laura and I just had the great joy and privilege of worshipping here in Beijing, China," he said as parishioners exited to "Onward Christian Soldiers." "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."
China allows worship only in officially approved churches such as the one Bush visited with his wife, so millions of people pray privately in house churches to avoid detection. The Chinese government has bristled at Bush's prodding as pointless meddling.
Bush spoke of the great joy he felt while worshipping in the church, where a choir of boys and girls wearing white shirts and Jesus fish pins performed "Amazing Grace" in English and Chinese.
Bush poses with U.S. Women's Beach Volleyball team player Kerri Walsh (R), 8/9/08 (REUTERS/Larry Downing).
Phelps, trying to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals, crushed his old mark of 4:05.25 in the 400 IM, set in June at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Bush sat with his wife, daughter and father for the swimming finals. The current president held up a U.S. flag, drawing cheers from American fans sitting on the other side of the 17,000-seat arena. Secret Service agents kept curious onlookers away from the president's seating section, while others strained to get photos of America's first family.
Bush came to Beijing mainly to have fun at the Olympics, has found himself immersed in a conflict with China's neighbor to the north, Russia. A grim and blunt president on Saturday upbraided Moscow over its escalating standoff with Georgia. Bush questioned attacks in parts of Georgia away from South Ossetia, the breakaway province at the center of the fight. He pushed Russia to embrace an international mediation effort by the United States and its European allies.
"The violence is endangering regional peace," Bush said.
His Saturday schedule juxtaposed moments light and somber, sometimes jarringly so.
He took a rigorous ride on the Olympic mountain biking course, had a try at beach volleyball and laughed it up with members of the U.S. women's softball team. The president enjoyed the sweat-soaked experience of hanging out with athletes in an unscripted way.
Later came the news that a Chinese man had stabbed the in-laws of the U.S. Olympic men's volleyball coach, killing one and injuring the other, and stabbed a tour guide, too. The assailant committed suicide by jumping from the tourist site the Americans were visiting. Bush spoke out on the violent act too, expressing sadness about the stabbing.
As scheduled, Bush then went back to rooting for his country's team. He took off the coat and tie and headed to the basketball arena to watch the U.S. women's team with his family.
Bush and Hu met just one month ago, at the summit in Japan of the world's economic powers. Standing together, Bush told reporters at the time that he and Hu "have constantly had discussions about human rights and political freedom. He knows my position."
Just in case, Bush has kept on it through his weeklong Asia trip.
In Thailand, Bush said the U.S. firmly opposes China's crackdown on political dissidents and human rights activists. The speech angered China's government, which responded by telling Bush not to intrude in its affairs.
"Only China can decide what course it will follow, but I'm optimistic about the prospects," Bush said in his radio address Saturday, taped in Beijing. "Young people who grow up with freedom in one area of their lives will ultimately demand freedom in other areas."
When Bush's diplomatic meetings with the Chinese leaders end, it's back to the basketball arena. This time it is the men's game between the United States and China.