BEIJING — Christian underground activist Hua Huiqi dearly wanted to attend the same church service as President George W. Bush last Sunday, so he got up in the middle of the night to pedal his bicycle there.
After all, Kuanjie Protestant Church is where Hua was baptized when he became a Christian in 1992, and Bush selected it for his high-profile church visit.
But shortly after dawn, as Hua and his elder brother pedaled about a mile from the church, plainclothes police intercepted them and hauled them away. Next came an escape, a plaintive cry for help and a clear vignette of how religious repression functions in China despite the claims of the nation's atheist leaders that they tolerate religious activity, a tenet that is at the heart of the Olympic movement.
Hua, a 46-year-old pastor in China's underground Christian church, says the police took him and his brother to a nearby security office.
"They asked me why I was going to Kuanjie Protestant Church to worship and threatened me, saying, 'You are not allowed to go to Kuanjie Protestant Church because President Bush is going there today. If you [try to] go again, we will break your legs,' " Hua wrote in a letter from a secret hiding place.
'I prayed. ... I fled'
"They confiscated my Bible and thereupon began their watch over me. I prayed. After about four or five hours, when I saw that the people who were watching me had all fallen asleep, I fled," Hua wrote in the letter he sent to Human Rights in China, a non-profit group with offices in New York and Hong Kong.
Hua said in the letter that he is afraid to go home because he may be rearrested.
His elder brother, Hua Huilin, told Agence France-Presse that Hua Huiqi "wanted to see Bush. He had something he wanted to talk to him about."
During Bush's visit to Beijing, which ended Monday afternoon, he mentioned religious freedom four times in public, pressing Chinese authorities to provide greater religious freedom to the nation's 1.3 billion people.
"Laura and I just had the great joy and privilege of worshiping here in Beijing," Bush said outside Kuanjie Protestant Church. "You know, 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."
Kuanjie Church is part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government-sanctioned Protestant congregation with an estimated 11 million registered worshipers.
Millions worship in shadows
Chinese are legally allowed to worship only at officially approved Christian churches, leaving millions of people worshiping in fear of arrest at "underground" churches operating out of people's homes. China is believed to have three to four times as many underground believers as the 4 million Roman Catholics and 11 million Protestants officially registered in the nation.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, last week rejected charges that China does not respect religious freedom.
"Chinese citizens have freedom of religion. These are indisputable facts," Qin said.
The executive director of Human Rights in China, Sharon Hom, said the Hua case underscores religious freedom issues that ripple across to Tibet, where Buddhist monks rose up in March to protest controls on their monasteries, and in the Xinjiang region, where radical Muslim Uighurs increasingly turn to violence.
"It's an incident that opens a whole powerful window on religious repression in China. It's not just against the Christians. It's against the Tibetans. It's against the Uighurs, and the [outlawed] Falun Gong practitioners," Hom said.
China in 1999 outlawed Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that gained millions of adherents in the 1990s, and accused it of fomenting social instability and spreading superstition.
Hua has been subject to numerous detentions and beatings over nearly two decades. His 76-year-old mother, Shuang Shuying, is currently serving a 2-year term in the Beijing Women's Prison for protesting an earlier detention of her son.