Beijing Although the communist government still tries to choose church leaders and keep believers in line, Christianity is growing in China because freedom is growing in China.
The Chinese Communist Party remains an atheist ideology that views faith with suspicion. But the Chinese government's success in delivering a better material life has left a growing number of Chinese wanting to fill a spiritual vacuum where Chinese communism has little left to offer.
President Bush and Dallas Theological Seminary President Mark Bailey worshiped at Beijing Protestant church Sunday to encourage religious freedom. Bailey and Dallas Theological are making a contribution with Web-based instruction for Chinese seminarians.
Outside the Kuanjie Protestant Church, English teacher Ann Wilson of Maryville, Tenn., stood in the rain, discussing Bush's visit, faith and politics with neighbors.
"For almost 60 years they've heard the story that you do not need religion because the party will fill all your needs. That's not there anymore," Wilson said. "The Chinese are turning to religion because there's an emptiness inside."
Wilson and her husband, David, first came to China 20 years ago and now manage a network of Christian teachers called Volunteers for China. The teachers spend four months teaching English and setting a faith example.
"There's no law against caring, giving and loving," she said.
Recent opinion polls have found roughly one-third of Chinese adults consider religion important in their lives, which suggests 300 million believers. The largest number are thought to be Buddhists, followed by Protestants and Catholics.
Beijing still tries to suppress believers regarded as threats to the government's hold on power. Top Chinese officials blame Tibet's Buddhist monks for riots that broke out in March and accuse the Dalai Lama of instigating an independence campaign that has considerable support abroad.
The government has tried to break up the Buddhist community by appointing its own successor to the Dalai Lama.
Both Protestant and Catholic churches in China are split between congregations that toe the line by registering with the government, and underground practitioners who follow their own star.
Kuanjie Protestant is one of the registered churches, but that doesn't mean its members lack enthusiasm.
"The spirit of the Bible will shine on China very clearly now," said Chen Chi Lili, a 33-year-old real estate saleswoman who was baptized five years ago. "God is living among us. It's not only a belief. It's true."
Bush made a brief statement after the 8 a.m. service, thanking the pastor and his congregation.
"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," Bush said.
Some criticized Bush for attending services at a government-registered church, with one underground church supporter even comparing it to the Chinese regime's attempt to take over the leadership of Tibetan Buddhism.
Wilson, her hair matted by the rain, said these arguments aren't helpful.
Bush's worship at the Kuanjie church "shows respect for Chinese Christians," she said. "Any respect you can show to the Chinese church is welcome. They've been working for many years to show you can be a Christian and a good Chinese citizen at the same time."