President Critical of Chinese Religious Restrictions

President Bush expressed concern Thursday at what he described as growing persecution of religious followers in China, saying he viewed such government attacks as a sign of "weakness."

In a speech on religious freedom to the American Jewish Committee, Bush lamented "intensifying attacks" on religious freedom in China. He cited arrests of followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, destruction of churches and mosques, and widespread arrests of worshippers and religious leaders. He singled out religious followers in Tibet as "the target of especially harsh and unjust persecution."

"The Chinese government continues to display an unreasonable and unworthy suspicion of freedom of conscience," Bush said in prepared remarks.

The president praised China for "great strides toward freedom in recent decades," offering as examples expanded access to information and greater liberty to travel, but he said the religious restrictions threaten China's growth.

"China aspires to national strength and greatness," he said, "but these acts of persecution are acts of fear -- and therefore, of weakness."

"This persecution is unworthy of all that China has been: a civilization with a history of tolerance," Bush said. "And this persecution is unworthy of all that China should become -- an open society that respects the spiritual dignity of its people."

A State Department report said China's human rights record deteriorated last year, with intensified crackdowns on religion and political dissent.

Bush's remarks came at a tense time in U.S-China relations. A U.S. Navy spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet on April 1 over the South China Sea. The U.S. crew made an emergency landing, and the Chinese pilot was lost. The American crew was held on Hainan island for 11 days before being released.

The Pentagon said this week that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had suspended all contacts with the Chinese military. The Bush administration retracted the statement, which it called a misunderstanding.

Administration officials scrambled Thursday to explain that Bush and Rumsfeld intended all elements of the military-to-military contacts to be "reviewed and approved on a case-by-case basis."

"What the secretary was rightly doing was saying that we're going to review all opportunities to interface with the Chinese and if it enhances our relationship, it may make sense," Bush said Thursday.

"We've only been in office for 104 days. We've got to review all policy that we inherited," Bush said.