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BEIJING (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush wasted no time on Friday raising the touchy issues of religious freedom and free speech in China, hours before he was to attend the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Despite criticism by China for meddling in its internal affairs, he used the dedication of a new American embassy in Beijing to drive home his point that freedom of speech was the best way to promote prosperity and peace.
"We continue to be candid about our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose," he said at the embassy dedication, a 10-acre ultra-modern complex.
"We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful," Bush said a few hours before a lunch hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao for foreign leaders.
Bush has been criticized by human rights activists and some U.S. lawmakers for going to the opening ceremonies and the Games, arguing it offered credibility to the Chinese government despite its record on human and religious rights.
He countered that he was primarily going to the Games to cheer on the U.S. athletes and that he frequently has candid conversations with China's leaders about religious freedom and its human rights record.
"Candour is most effective when nations have built a relationship of respect and trust," Bush said. "I've worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust."
Chinese dignitaries at the dedication sat expressionless.
He also went to lengths to emphasize their areas of agreement, such as working to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons and Beijing's move toward a more open and free economy. Bush also noted that the new embassy reflected the "solid foundation underpinning our relations."
Attending the ceremony was his father George H.W. Bush, who served not only as president but also as envoy to China, as well as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who helped orchestrate a thaw in China-U.S. relations in the 1970s.
Asked what he thought of Bush's comments on human rights at the embassy dedication, Kissinger told Reuters: "It was important for him to do this."
Just hours later, Bush was warmly greeted by China's president at a luncheon held at the Great Hall of the People for foreign leaders attending the Olympics. The two leaders will hold formal discussions on Sunday.
Bush, an avid sports enthusiast who once owned part of the Texas Rangers baseball team, plans to attend several competitions, including men's and women's basketball games as well as a baseball practice, according to the White House.
His attendance at the Olympics is the first by a sitting U.S. president on foreign soil.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang Thursday defended China's rights record, saying people enjoyed a range of freedoms, including freedom of religion, but added a warning too.
"We resolutely oppose any words or actions which interfere in the internal affairs of another country in the name of issues such as human rights and religion," he said in a statement on the ministry's website (www.fmprc.gov.cn).
While Bush has said he had no intention of using the Olympics as a platform for lecturing China on human rights, he said he would discuss such matters privately with President Hu.
And to further emphasize his push for religious freedom, on Sunday Bush will attend a service at one of the government sanctioned churches in Beijing, the Kuanjie Protestant Christian Church. Other unregistered churches exist, some of which face repression.
Editing by Sanjeev Miglani