By Mark Ellis
At the 62nd annual prayer breakfast Thursday morning, President Barack Obama confirmed his faith in Christ and took a strong stand for religious freedom around the world, encouraging prayers for imprisoned pastors in Iran and North Korea.
The First Lady and Vice-President Biden attended the traditional gathering held at the Washington Hilton, along with foreign dignitaries such as President Martelly from Haiti and President Nishani from Albania. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) co-chaired this year’s breakfast.
Bethany Hamilton, the evangelical surfer who tragically lost an arm in a shark attack, read the story of the Good Samaritan from the Book of Luke and the well-known Scripture from Ephesians about how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.
President Obama recalled the significance of his church involvement in Chicago. “I’m grateful not only because I was broke and the church fed me, but because it led to everything else. It led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. It led me to Michelle — the love of my life — and it blessed us with two extraordinary daughters. It led me to public service. And the longer I serve, especially in moments of trial or doubt, the more thankful I am of God’s guiding hand.”
The President spoke out against the “modern slavery of human trafficking, an outrage that we must all join together to end.”
He said he is especially looking forward to his return-visit to the Vatican next month to meet Pope Francis, “whose message about caring for the ‘least of these’ is one that I hope all of us heed.” President Obama said he was inspired by the Pope’s “words and deeds, his humility, his mercy and his missionary impulse to serve the cause of social justice.”
A major theme of the President’s talk related to religious freedom internationally. “Around the world freedom of religion is under threat,” he noted.
He said freedom of religion is central to human dignity, “the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do this free from persecution and fear.
“History shows that nations that uphold the rights of their people — including the freedom of religion — are ultimately more just and more peaceful and more successful. Nations that do not uphold these rights sow the bitter seeds of instability and violence and extremism. So freedom of religion matters to our national security,” he said to applause.
The President said that promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy. “I’m proud that no nation on Earth does more to stand up for the freedom of religion around the world than the United States of America.”
In President Obama’s previous meetings with Chinese leaders, he said he stressed upholding universal rights, including religious freedom for Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Uighur Muslims. He also mentioned his concerns regarding Burma, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Coptic Christians in Egypt.
During the peace negotiations currently being conducted by Secretary Kerry between Israelis and Palestinians, Pres. Obama said “we’ve made clear that lasting peace will require freedom of worship and access to holy sites for all faiths.”
He said his administration also opposes certain blasphemy and defamation of religion measures, “which are promoted sometimes as an expression of religion, but, in fact, all too often can be used to suppress religious minorities.”
President Obama encouraged prayers for Kenneth Bae, the Christian missionary held in North Korea for 15 months, and also sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. “The United States will continue to do everything in our power to secure his release because Kenneth Bae deserves to be free,” he said.
“We pray for Pastor Saeed Abedini. He’s been held in Iran for more than 18 months, sentenced to eight years in prison on charges relating to his Christian beliefs. And as we continue to work for his freedom, today, again, we call on the Iranian government to release Pastor Abedini so he can return to the loving arms of his wife and children in Idaho.”
Keynote speaker Rajiv Shah, the USAID Administrator, shared a story of his visit to a Somali refugee camp with Jill Biden two years ago. They encountered a mother who carried each of her two children in an attempt to escape famine.
She became so weak she could only carry one child. “She looked down at her two children and she said a prayer—then she made the excruciating decision to leave one of them behind so she could save the other,” he said. “Were they somehow lesser than our sons and daughters? Did their fathers love them less? Did their mothers? Did God?”