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Bush Olympic Visit Highlights Religion in China

President Bush, who is in Beijing for the start of the Olympics, attended church Sunday and urged greater religious freedom in China. The communist country remains officially atheist, and human rights groups have criticized China's government for its treatment of some religious minorities and those who practice religion outside of government-sanctioned institutions. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Beijing that some in China see a growing role for religion in the future.

At Chong Wen Men Protestant church in Beijing, ethnic Koreans from northeastern China hold a Sunday worship service in their native language.

In the Niujie area, Beijing's largest Muslim neighborhood, believers gather for noontime prayer.

The Niujie area has Islamic supermarkets, restaurants and bookstores. This mosque, a lively center for education and worship, was founded 1000 years ago.

These Beijing Muslims are part of the one or two percent of the Chinese population that embraces Islam. Christians are thought to number three to four percent. Buddhism and Taoism are traditional Chinese faiths, and remain a part of the culture.

Officials insist that religion is practiced freely in China, and they point to congregations like this mosque in Niujie. Yet critics point to tight controls and persecution of groups that do not enjoy official favor. The Chinese government recognizes five faiths - Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Protestant and Catholic Christianity. Congregations must register with a state-controlled association, and unregistered groups, including Christian house churches, are illegal and subject to crackdowns. Human rights groups have criticized a crackdown on dissidents and unregistered faith groups in the lead-up to the Olympics.

Human Rights groups also accuse China of repression of Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang, and members of the outlawed spiritual group Falun Gong. The government responds that religious freedom is enshrined in Chinese law, and accuses the critics of interfering in China's internal affairs.

Results of a 2007 survey published in a state-run newspaper suggest that religion is growing in China. The authors of the study said 31 percent of China's people describe themselves as religious, a figure three times higher than the previous government estimate. The authors attribute the rising role of religion to a more open political climate and the stresses of social change.

The study said traditional religions, such as Buddhism, are surging in popularity. This young woman is one of many who come to pray at a Beijing Buddhist temple.

"For my family and for myself and for my friends," she said.

She says she often prays, and is free to practice her faith. But another worshipper complained about restrictions on religion and the media, and about China's hostility to the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama. China accuses the Dalai Lama of fomenting civil unrest among Tibetans and promoting independence, which the Dalai Lama denies.

President Bush urged Chinese leaders not to fear religion. At the Niujie mosque, administrative director Wei Chunjie says he feels the Chinese government sees its value.

He says not all Chinese share his Islamic beliefs, but that religious virtues, such as charity and mutual respect, are the same civic virtues the Chinese government promotes.