WASHINGTON — President Obama on Thursday declared global religious freedom is "under threat" and he called on North Korea and Iran to release Americans jailed for practicing their Christian beliefs.
Speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, Obama also denounced abuses in the name of religion that discriminate and oppress minorities.
"We sometimes see religion 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 said at the private event that draws hundreds of members of Congress, national leaders and foreign dignitaries to the Washington Hilton ballroom.
His remarks drew both praise and skepticism from human rights advocates and a religious freedom scholar.
"I hope this is not another example of a splendid speech followed by no action whatsoever," said Thomas F. Farr, who directs the Religious Freedom Project and the Program on Religion and US Foreign Policy at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
Obama singled out Americans Kennth Bae, a Christian missionary who has served 15 months of a 15 year sentence of hard labor in a North Korean prison, and Saeed Abedini, jailed in Iran for 18 months after being permitted to enter the nation for charitable activities.
He said his administration is working for the release of both men.
"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,” Obama said.
Obama's call for the release of Bae and Abedini drew plaudits from the Institute for Religion and Democracy, whose program director Faith J.H. McDonald said in a statement, "There are hundreds of other Christians, such as Pastor Benham Irani and Muslim background believer Alireza Seyyedian, as well as prisoners of other faiths, including Baha’i, imprisoned in Iran. We urge the President to continue to call for the release of all of these prisoners, and for the Iranian Islamist regime to allow religious freedom."
Before singling out the two American captives, Obama said that "as our faith sustains us, it’s also clear that around the world freedom of religion is under threat. We see governments engaging in discrimination and violence against the faithful."
The president said no society can flourish without guaranteeing "the rights of all its peoples, including religious minorities" and he called out Syria to ensure "a place for all people — Alawites and Sunni, Shia and Christian."
Obama spoke out against blasphemy laws that "are promoted sometimes as an expression of religion, but, in fact, all too often can be used to suppress religious minorities.
"We continue to stand for the rights of all people to practice their faiths in peace and in freedom," he said. "And we will continue to stand against the ugly tide of anti-Semitism that rears its ugly head all too often."
Farr said he hopes Obama follows up his speech with action, particularly when the president said, "I look forward to nominating our next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom."
In a telephone interview, Farr said Obama's remarks, "by and large, they were quite good and in some cases rhetorically invigorating, even encouraging." However, he added, "I’ve seen other good and splendid speeches by this president on religious freedom, such as his 2009 speech in Cairo, but no policy action followed. Let’s get moving on an ambassador (for international religious freedom) — there’s plenty of good candidate and time’s a-wasting."
Earlier at the breakfast, Rajiv Shah, a physician and the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, drew on Jesus’ injunction to “Go, and do thou likewise” — from the parable of the Good Samaritan found in Luke Chapter 10 — for his remarks.
Recalling his experiences visiting “the world’s largest refugee camp” housing Somalis fleeing civil war in their homeland, Shah asked, “how do we, today, ‘go and do likewise?’ We have to put the power of business and science into the hands of those who live their faith and serve this common purpose.”
Of the refugees, he said, “Children were receiving great new vaccines that wouldn’t have been available to poor kids a few years ago. In just the last decade, we’ve built partnerships with vaccine manufacturers, immunized 440 million kids and saved 6 million lives. Similar efforts have cut the rate of children dying from malaria in half. And we’re close to eliminating the transmission of HIV/AIDS from mothers to their children.”
Such anodyne comments were in contrast to 2013’s guest address by Dr. Benjamin S. Carson, who critiqued the Affordable Care Act as well as the U.S. income tax and educational systems. A year earlier, author Eric Metaxas raised the issue of abortion in his National Prayer Breakfast address.
Instead, Shah reflected on the life of Antoinette Tomasek, known as Toni, who perished in Haiti in a 2013 car crash while serving as a USAID worker there.
“She had been on the road that day in order to ensure the clinic was fully stocked with the right medicines to save kids’ lives,” Shah recalled. “She loved those kids like her own. Toni’s life had a calling and a purpose. Can we adopt her spirit of commitment? Can we love all children like our own? And can we — in whatever sphere we live — embrace our faith, summon the courage, and go and do likewise?”
The breakfast is not the only prayer-related event scheduled for the day. On Thursday evening, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was scheduled to address a dinner held by the Prayer Breakfast organizers in which he was expected to present "a nondenominational talk about his faith, his family and his relationship with Jesus Christ," an aide said in an email.