WASHINGTON—For the first time publicly President Barack Obama on Thursday named two U.S. citizens imprisoned overseas for their Christian beliefs and called for their release.
Obama, speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, said he prays for Kenneth Bae and Saeed Abedini. Bae is a Christian missionary who has spent 15 months in captivity in North Korea and has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Abedini has been held in Iran for more than 18 months and is facing eight years in prison for his Christian beliefs.
The president said the United States would “continue to do everything in our power” to secure Bae’s freedom and called on the Iranian government to release Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor, so “he can return to the loving arms of his wife and children in Idaho.”
The remarks came as Obama asked those gathered at the Washington Hilton to pray for all prisoners of conscience.
“Let’s imagine what it must be like for them,” the president said. “We may not know their names, but all around the world there are people who are waking up in cold cells, facing another day of confinement, another day of unspeakable treatment, simply because they are affirming God. And I hope that somehow they hear our prayers for them, that they know that, along with the spirit of God, they have our spirit with them as well, and that they are not alone.”
Obama devoted most of his speech to international religious freedom, calling it central to the dignity of a person. “To harm anyone in the name of faith is to diminish our own relationship with God,” he said.
Religion has strengthened America, the president said. He tied America’s national security to religious liberty, calling the promotion of religious liberty a “key objective” of U.S. foreign policy. The president said he would soon appoint a new ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
The president said his administration has pressed the leaders of other nations to do better at upholding and respecting religious freedoms, adding, “It is not always comfortable to do, but it’s right.” Obama mentioned the rights of Christians in China and Burma (also known as Myanmar) and the need for people to be able to worship without fear in the churches of Nigeria.
“I’ve made the case that no society can truly succeed unless it guarantees the rights of all its peoples, including religious minorities,” Obama said.
But the president didn’t mention the ongoing battle for religious liberty here in the United States. Military chaplains are fighting to preserve their ability to worship the way their faith dictates, including praying in Jesus’ name. And Christian organizations and businesses have taken their battle against Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican and one of the breakfast’s co-chairs, said this event is not about the nation’s differences.
“There is a time when we can argue and debate the important issues and our disagreement on how to go about achieving the best for America,” said Gohmert, who is one of Obama’s toughest critics on Capitol Hill. “But this isn’t it. This is the time we come together with one heart and one accord.”
Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has spoken at this non-denominational gathering. Compared with recent prayer breakfasts, Obama did not provide detailed glimpses into his own spiritual life. He did say that the longer he serves in public office the more thankful he becomes for “God's guiding hand.” He also described how the church fed him when he was broke, led him to “embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior,” and led him to Michelle Obama, whom he called “the love of my life.”
At last year’s National Prayer Breakfast, Ben Carson, a Maryland neurosurgeon, rose to higher national prominence in conservative circles by taking apart the tenants of Obamacare during his keynote address. The video of that speech went viral.
But this year’s event was more muted. The keynote speaker, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator Rajiv Shah, challenged the leaders in attendance from all over the world to end poverty within their lifetimes.
“Because this is now achievable,” he said. “But only if all of us—from science, business, government, and faith—come together for the poor.”
Shah's address stood in stark contrast to Carson’s 2013 speech. He even echoed some of the themes Obama presented in his recent State of the Union address, which isn’t surprising since he’s a member of the Obama administration. That’s a rare departure from past prayer breakfasts, which have featured cultural figures, singers, and authors.
Carson delivered his attacks on Obamacare last year standing just feet away from where Obama sat. The president also had to sit nearby two years ago when Eric Metaxas, the best-selling Christian author of a biography on Dietrich Bonheoffer, compared today’s abortion culture with slavery and the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews. This year, the president had an easier time listening to Shah, who was raised with a Hindu heritage as an Indian-American.
But in his speech, Shah noted that he has attended Senate prayer gatherings. He also told Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan while calling on people to “practice our faith the hard way by serving the least fortunate.”
“Governments can’t do this by themselves,” Shah added. “We have to put the power of business and science into the hands of those who live their faith and serve this common purpose.”