Speaking at an annual prayer breakfast in the nation’s capital, U.S. President Barack Obama stressed the need for religious freedom in order to respect human dignity and foster global stability.
“We believe that each of us is ‘wonderfully made’ in the image of God,” he said at the Feb. 6 event, and we “therefore, believe in the inherent dignity of every human being – dignity that no earthly power can take away.”
“And central to that dignity is freedom of religion – 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.”
An annual event since 1953, the National Prayer Breakfast is held in early February each year in Washington, D.C. It attracts thousands of guests and generally includes both a keynote address and comments from the U.S. president.
In his speech, President Obama noted that he is “looking forward” to his March meeting with Pope Francis, “whose message about caring for the ‘least of these’ is one that I hope all of us heed.”
He said that the Pope, like the Apostle Matthew, “has answered the call of Jesus, who said 'follow me,' and he inspires us with his words and deeds, his humility, his mercy and his missionary impulse to serve the cause of social justice.”
After thanking God for the blessings and opportunities of his life, including guidance in his decision “to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior,” Obama turned his focus to the importance of religious liberty, both at home and abroad.
Religious freedom in the U.S. has become a heated subject in recent months, particularly regarding the federal contraction mandate, which requires employers to offer health insurance plans covering birth control and related products, or to authorize an outside provider to give the coverage.
More than 300 plaintiffs – ranging from the owners of Hobby Lobby to the Little Sisters of the Poor – have filed lawsuits against the mandate, arguing that it is a violation of religious freedom.
In the United States, Obama said in his address, “we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion.”
This freedom both “safeguards religion” and “strengthens America” by allowing for faith-based work such as teaching, alleviating poverty, helping immigrants and fighting human trafficking.
However, the president continued, “even as our faith sustains us, it’s also clear that around the world freedom of religion is under threat.”
He lamented instances around the world where we “see governments engaging in discrimination and violence against the faithful” or where religion is “twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution against other people just because of who they are, or how they pray or who they love.”
He also addressed violent extremism enacted in the name of religion, saying that it is an effect of “ignorant nihilism” that ignores the tenants of faith, “for the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will; in fact, it’s the ultimate betrayal of God’s will.”
Instead, faith “teaches us that in the face of suffering, we can’t stand idly by and that we must be that Good Samaritan,” Obama said, emphasizing that “freedom of religion matters to our national security” and must be protected.
“I’ve made the case that no society can truly succeed unless it guarantees the rights of all its peoples, including religious minorities,” he said, calling on countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Egypt and Syria to work toward being “a place for all people.”
The United States sometimes works on matters of core importance with other governments “that don’t always meet our highest standards,” Obama acknowledged, but the U.S. also works to promote religious freedom as a key foreign policy objective in places such as China, Burma, Nigeria, Sudan, and South Sudan.
He also discussed the continuing talks between Israel and Palestine, saying that while the United States supports them “as they engage in direct talks, we’ve made clear that lasting peace will require freedom of worship and access to holy sites for all faiths.”
In addition, the president offered prayers for the release of prisoners of conscience, particularly U.S. citizens Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary who has been held in North Korea for 15 months, and Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor who has been imprisoned in Iran for more than 18 months.
“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,” Obama said.
“Despite all they’ve endured, despite all the awful punishments if caught, they will wait for that moment when the guards aren’t looking, and when they can close their eyes and bring their hands together and pray,” he added, praising their dedication and faith.
Reaffirming his commitment to religious liberty against threats including blasphemy legislation and other oppressive laws, Obama promised that the United States “will keep standing for religious freedom around the world.”