WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama told a non-denominational gathering of political leaders Thursday that freedom of religion across the world is important to national security and is a central tenet of U.S. diplomacy.
Speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, Obama cast his message as an international call for human rights, singling out countries that he said have fallen short, particularly when it comes to extending protections and freedoms to all faiths.
He said some of that diplomacy is not comfortable, especially when dealing with nations that are strategically and economically important to the United States, such as China.
When meeting with Chinese leaders, he said, "I stress that realizing China's potential rests on upholding universal rights, including for Christians and Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims."
In the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, he added, "we have made clear that lasting peace will require freedom of worship and access to holy sites for all faiths."
"More broadly I've made the case that no society can truly succeed unless it guarantees the rights of all of its peoples, including religious minorities, whether they are Ahmadia Muslims in Pakistan or Bahais in Iran or Coptic Christians in Egypt," Obama said.
Obama also offered prayers for Kenneth Bae, a U.S. missionary being held in North Korea, and Saeed Abedini, an Idaho pastor who is in custody in Iran. Bae was arrested in November 2012 in North Korea while leading a tour group and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for unspecified anti-government activity. Supporters say he did nothing wrong. Abedini, who is of Iranian origin, has been held since September 2012 and is serving an eight-year sentence after being convicted of trying to establish a network of Christian churches in private homes.
Obama and other attendees gave a standing ovation to Obama's fellow Hawaiian, pro surfer Bethany Hamilton, after she described how God transformed the loss of her arm from a shark attack into something "totally amazing" by giving her the ability to inspire others.
Reps. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and Janice Hahn, D-Calif., welcomed the packed ballroom with some bipartisan humor. Hahn said prayer helped her forgive Gohmert for criticizing food stamp recipients for buying king crab legs. "For all you know it was imitation crab," she deadpanned.
Gohmert said he was asked whether he really wanted to serve in a Congress with all its backstabbing meanness, but he was prepared. "I was the deacon of a Baptist church," he joked.