ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – President Bush on Sunday praised steps toward religious freedom in Russia, ending his three-day visit with a stop at a historic synagogue and worship at a Russian Orthodox church that was a monument to atheism under Soviet rule.
"One of my strong beliefs is that people should be free to worship, and I'm pleased that is taking place in Russia," Bush said outside Grand Choral Synagogue. "It is important for this country that religious freedom flourish and that there be tolerance for all faiths."
The synagogue, here in the hometown of Russian President Vladimir Putin, remained open during the Soviet era, but Jews who came to worship were harassed by government police. Before visiting Grand Choral, Bush attended services at Kazan Cathedral, which under communism had been the city's Museum of Atheism.
Taking note of that past, Bush said, "I'm impressed by what I've heard from religious leaders, Christian and Jewish here, about the state of affairs in Russia."
Before leaving for Paris to meet with French President Jacques Chirac, Bush also told reporters that he has "strong reservations" about a series of Pakistani missile tests that began Saturday, but hoped India would not view the tests as a sign of provocation.
The administration fears the tests could increase tensions between India and Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region. Bush noted that both countries are nuclear powers and "everybody understands the dangers ... and the serious consequences."
"Obviously we hope that there is restraint in the area," Bush said.
On another foreign policy issue, Bush said he is frustrated that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "had a chance to secure the peace as a result of the hard work of President Clinton, and he didn't.'' Some among the leadership of the Palestinian Authority are showing a "new attitude'' toward Arafat, Bush said, adding, "People are beginning to question out loud why there hasn't been some success" on peace efforts.
Bush's visits to the houses of worship underscored his pledge to push human rights issues alongside traditional foreign policy.
Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of Jewish Communities, attended Bush's visit and said the synagogue represents the flourishing of religious freedoms under Putin.
"President Bush's coming here today is a statement that even though he's here to discuss nuclear arms reduction, he also believes protecting the rights of minorities is paramount in democracy," Berkowitz said.
It wrapped up a visit to Putin's hometown that included a Saturday night a visit to the ballet, a boat ride, fireworks and a midnight sun.
Before leaving for the next stop on his weeklong four-nation European tour, Bush and Putin sealed an agreement to work together in global hot spots.
Their immediate priority: the escalating India-Pakistan confrontation.
Fearing South Asia is hurtling toward war, Bush and Putin joined forces Saturday in pressuring Pakistan's president to curb cross-border violence in the disputed region of disputed Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim.
The teamwork came after Pakistan launched the first in a series of missile tests Saturday despite objections from the United States and Russia.
India and Pakistan both possess nuclear weapons and they have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir.
"There's no benefit of war," Bush said with Putin at his side during a visit to Putin's hometown. "There's no benefit of a clash that could eventually lead to a broader war."
Bush was headed to Paris on Sunday after a summit with Putin that saw the signing of the most sweeping nuclear arms-reduction ever between the two formal rivals, and a host of other agreements.
The president was visiting both a cathedral and a synagogue on Sunday — stops chosen to emphasize U.S. acknowledgment of Russian moves toward religious tolerance — before flying to France.
Saturday night, Putin and Bush and their wives set aside politics for a night on the town.
They attended a performance of The Nutcracker ballet at the Mariinskiy Theater, the same theater where the famous ballet was first performed in 1892 in the hometown of its composer, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Then they took a dinner cruise on the Neva River.
Because the city is so far north, there was still some light in the sky as they ended their cruise near midnight — to a celebratory display of fireworks.
Bush rarely is up so late, but since he and Putin were in such upbeat moods after what they viewed as a successful summit, he amended his early-to-bed routine, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
"Since it's still light, we don't count it as midnight," said Fleischer.
Earlier, Bush and Putin fielded questions from university students and faculty at St. Petersburg State University, Putin's alma mater.
Economics was a top topic at the session. And, while they mostly were in agreement, some economic differences were highlighted.
Putin blamed some Cold War-era U.S. trade restrictions for making it harder for Russia to export high-tech goods. And Bush said that, while he supports Moscow's entry into the World Trade Organization, he opposes bending the group's stiff standards to make it happen.