Just hours after Chinese President Jiang Zemin told George Bush that the People's Republic of China has always had freedom of worship, 70 Chinese police stormed a Christian service Thursday, arrested 47 elderly Christians for "illegally gathering," and confiscated their Bibles.

The detainees were released one or two days later but their house church (which doubled as a nursing home) was closed and slapped with a $6,000 fine. Those arrested say they were accused of being Falun Gong members and not given water or bathroom access during their detention. Other prominent Christians spent Bush's visit under 24-hour surveillance.

With the emergence this month of secret Chinese papers that document extensive religious persecution and a growing number of Christian arrests, human rights groups pressed Bush to use last week's 30-hour diplomatic visit to encourage religious freedom in China.

Before arriving for his talks with Jiang, Bush said he hoped that "as a president of a great nation, Jiang would understand the important role of religion in an individual's life.''

On Thursday, Jiang told Bush that he has no religious faith. "Yet this does not prevent me from having an interest in religion," he said. "I've read the Bible, I've also read the Qur'an, as well as the Scriptures of Buddhism. I often have meetings with the religious leaders in this country and exchange views."

Jiang's comments were made at a mutual press conference [transcript | audio | video] where he and Bush discussed the progress of their talks. Reporters twice asked Jiang about China's policy on religious freedom and the imprisonment of over 50 Catholic bishops and priests. Jiang did not answer the questions but belatedly returned to the subject near the end of the press ...

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