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Bush urges China to open dialogue with Dalai Lama

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush on Wednesday urged China to open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, saying Beijing would find the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader to be a “fine man.”

His comments came as several Democrats called for a boycott of opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics, and thousands of China supporters and protesters gathered in San Francisco where the Olympic torch began its only relay in the United States.

Bush said this week he plans to attend the Olympics and also to speak out on religious freedoms.

As if to demonstrate that, Bush said after meeting with Singapore Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong they had both agreed “that it would stand the Chinese government in good stead if they would begin a dialogue with the representatives of the Dalai Lama.”

He added: “If they ever were to reach out to the Dalai Lama, they’d find him to be a really fine man, a peaceful man, a man who is anti-violence, a man who is not for independence but for the cultural identity of the Tibetans being maintained.”

Some Democrats, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, have urged Bush to boycott the Olympics opening ceremonies to protest Chinese actions in Tibet.

EWTN Global Catholic Network asked Bush in an interview this week how “in good conscience” he could attend the opening ceremonies considering China’s human rights record.

“I’m going to the Olympics, for starters. And I’ve, my plans aren’t, haven’t changed,” Bush responded in the interview to air April 11. EWTN provided a transcript of the comments.

“I don’t need the Olympics to express my position to the Chinese leadership on freedom,” Bush said. “These Chinese leaders know exactly my position. I’ve talked about freedom of religion every time I visited with them.

“And my question that I think about is, if I politicize the Olympic Games, will that make it less effective for me to deal with them, or more effective?” Bush said.

“But nobody needs to ... tell old George Bush ... that he needs to bring religious freedom to the doorstep of the Chinese, because I’ve done that now for -- I’m on my eighth year doing it.”

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino was repeatedly asked whether Bush would attend the opening ceremonies and replied that she could not say. “But I’m not trying to signal anything by saying that, ” she said “It is way too far in advance for us to announce the president’s schedule.”

In another development, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States was considering whether to open a consulate in Tibet.

Such a move would require the approval of the Chinese government, which has severely restricted access to Tibet for foreign diplomats and journalists following riots that broke out in the regional capital Lhasa on March 14.

“We are looking at the possibility of a consulate in Tibet,” Rice told lawmakers at a congressional hearing.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by David Wiessler