President Jiang Zemin yesterday betrayed signs of a host who had been on the receiving end of a stern and unwelcome religious sermon by his guest and was trying to disguise his irritation. At their joint press conference, Mr Jiang refused to look at President George W. Bush at all and the two men made no physical displays of public affection, but talked of holding 'candid' talks. After twice pointedly ignoring questions directed to him by American reporters on religious freedom in China, Mr Jiang finally made a stab at answering the question in off-the-cuff remarks. 'In China there are many religions, including Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and a typical Chinese religion, Taoism. And their religious faiths are protected by our constitution. I don't have religious faith. Yet this does not prevent me from having an interest in religion. I've read the Bible, I've also read the Koran as well as the scriptures of Buddhism,' Mr Jiang said. Having been asked by a US reporter about a list of 50 imprisoned Catholic priests and bishops, he then defended China's record. 'Whatever religion people believe in, they have to abide by the law. If they have broken laws, they cannot be forgiven just because they are believers.' 'On this point, [although] I am the President of the People's Republic of China, I also cannot interfere in the judiciary,' he said. Mr Bush mentioned religious freedom only once at the press conference, saying: 'All the world's people, including the people of China, should be free to choose how they live, how they worship, and how they work.' At a later briefing, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice revealed the two presidents had an 'extensive discussion on religious freedom' and a 'really rather long exchange'. Mr Bush encouraged Mr Jiang to 'think hard' about opening a dialogue with religious communities and religious figures, like the Dalai Lama, the Vatican and others. She said Mr Bush had already talked at some length to Mr Jiang in Shanghai at the Asia-Pacific Economic forum leaders' summit in November about his own personal religious beliefs and had thanked Mr Jiang for his willingness to listen. 'The President talked more this time about perhaps using the opportunities before China to engage religious communities, about the value that religion had played in the United States during the time we have just been through, as a kind of stabilising and calming force for the American people,' Ms Rice said, characterising it all as 'a very friendly discussion'. She said that following the Shanghai meeting, Mr Jiang set up a working group on religion. His new interest in the subject showed the unusually high importance accorded to the national conference on religion held last December, which stressed that the state must maintain control over religions. Yesterday morning's discussions on religion took place in the smaller of two meetings attended by about five people from each side.