|President Obama delivers remarks at the Washington Hilton|
Washington, DC -- President Barack Obama on Thursday called on Iran and North Korea to release two American men imprisoned since 2012 for their religious beliefs, using his remarks at the 62nd National Prayer Breakfast to offer prayers for the captives and calling on nations around the world to respect religious freedom.
The President said Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary born in South Korean with US citizenship who is imprisoned in North Korea, and Iranian American pastor Saeed Abedini, imprisoned in Iran, are both victims of religious intolerance for their Christian faith. He pledged that the US will continue to work for their freedom.
"Around the world, freedom of religion is under threat," President Obama crowd of more than 3,500 gathered in the ballroom at the Washington Hilton.
"We see governments engaging in discrimination and violence against the faithful."
The President emphasized that religious freedom is critical to national security--"no society can truly succeed unless it guarantees the rights of all its peoples, including religious minorities"--and said his Administration is working with foreign governments to encourage tolerance, including Israel, Palestine, Syria, Burma, Nigeria, Sudan and South Sudan, though he acknowledged that the US still partners with countries that do not live up to American standards.
The President pledged to continue to make the issue a centerpiece of engagement.
"Promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy," President Obama said.
"I'm proud to say no nation on Earth does more to stand up for the freedom of religion around the world than the United States of America."
Bae, 45, a father of 3, was arrested in North Korea in November 2012, and accused of preaching against the government, though the full details of his detainment remain murky.
The Obama administration has previously pushed for his release, but basketball player Dennis Rodman's recent trips to North Korea have cast more of a spotlight on Bae. In January, Rodman told media that Bae was rightfully imprisoned, a comment the White House rebuked.
"Let us never forget those who are persecuted today, among them Americans of faith," President Obama said at the breakfast. "We pray for Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary who’s been held in North Korea for 15 months, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor."
"His family wants him home. And the United States will continue to do everything in our power to secure his release because Kenneth Bae deserves to be free."
Abedini, whose wife and two children live in Idaho, has been held captive in Iran since he was arrested in the summer of 2012, "on charges related to his religious beliefs," according to the State Department. He has visited Iran over the last decade to set up Christian houses of worship.
"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," President Obama said.
"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."
Abedini's wife Naghmeh Abedini in December told lawmakers in a joint subcommittee hearing for the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he has been subjected to torture, and told that if he converts back to Islam, he would be set free.
Today was the first time President Obama has publicly raised the issue of Abedini, according to Jordan Sekulow, Executive Director of The American Center for Law & Justice, which is working to secure the pastor's release. The President previously discussed Abedini's release in a private phone call with Iran's President Rouhani last Fall, Sekulow said.
President Obama closed by offering prayers for all those imprisoned for their beliefs.
"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," he said.
|Sen. Casey, Mrs. Obama & Rep. Hahn applaud the President after his speech|
The event is annually hosted by Members of Congress and organized on their behalf by the secretive conservative Christian organization The Fellowship Foundation, more widely known as "The Family." Every President since Dwight D. Eisenhower has attended the breakfast since it began in 1953.
The President and Mrs. Obama sat at the head table with breakfast Co-Chair Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), a vociferous critic of the President, and Co-Chair Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA). Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss), former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and gospel singer Yolanda Adams were also at the head table.
Guests were from 130 nations and included clergy of all denominations, business leaders, lawmakers, Cabinet Secretaries and world leaders. Bujar Nishani, the President of Albania, and Michel Martelly, the President of Haiti, were among the attendees. Martelly was scheduled to meet with President Obama on Thursday afternoon at the White House.
Rajiv Shah, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, delivered the keynote. He said prayer groups are helping leaders worldwide to serve with greater moral courage, and urged the attendees to work toward the goal of ending poverty and illness.
"Let us work together to end extreme poverty in our lifetime," Shah said.
Bethany Hamilton, known for losing her arm in a shark attack and continuing her surfing career, also spoke.
President Obama took the podium for his remarks at 9:10 AM to a standing ovation after arriving in the ballroom at 7:55 AM, accompanied by Mrs. Obama and Biden.
The President arrived back at the White House at 9:52 AM. His meeting with Haiti's President was to discuss "Martelly’s vision for promoting economic growth and further strengthening Haiti’s democracy," the White House said.
*The transcript of the President's remarks.
*Top photo by Chuck Kennedy/White House