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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush Sees a Jewish Rebirth

ST. PETERSBURG -- U.S. President George W. Bush toured a synagogue Sunday and Jewish leaders said he had praised the post-Soviet rebirth of religious activity among the country's million-strong community.

Bush spent more than an hour in St. Petersburg's vast and recently renovated Choral Synagogue -- three times longer than allotted in his program.

"One of the non-negotiable demands of individual dignity is freedom of religion, and I'm impressed by what I've heard ... about the state of affairs in Russia," Bush told reporters after emerging from the synagogue. "It's important for this country that religious freedom flourishes and there be tolerance for all faiths."

Berl Lazar, one of Russia's two chief rabbis, said he had explained to the president the changes in the Jewish community and the help, rather than harassment, it now receives from the authorities.

"The meeting was a very warm one. There were plenty of jokes. He really didn't want to leave," Lazar said. "America was right to criticize Russia before for not allowing the Jewish community to develop, but now it should be honest and thank Russia."

Lazar said Bush had expressed satisfaction at what he said was the healthy atmosphere for Jews in post-Communist Russia, compared with rising anti-Semitism elsewhere in Europe.

Lazar said he and Bush had joked that Jews could find a way to get rid of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which links Russia's trade status to its emigration restrictions on Jews. Although Jews are now free to emigrate, the U.S. Congress has failed to lift the provision, with some politicians citing a spat over restrictions on U.S. poultry. "Bush said chicken had got in the way," Lazar said. "I told him the problem could be solved by exporting kosher chicken."