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WASHINGTON (BP) -- President Obama, at the National Prayer Breakfast, publicly called for Iran to release Saeed Abedini and for North Korea to release Kenneth Bae, two American Christians imprisoned for their faith in nations that suppress religious freedom.
The president, speaking at the Washington Hilton Hotel Feb. 6, urged Americans to "never forget those who are persecuted today."
"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," Obama said. "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."
Obama continued, "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. 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."
Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has led an international effort for Abedini's release, noted that Obama raised Abedini's situation in a private phone call with Iran's president last fall but the prayer breakfast comments marked the first time he publicly addressed the pastor's imprisonment.
"With President Obama highlighting this tragic case of religious persecution," Sekulow said in a statement, "we're hopeful that this new level of engagement by our government -- President Obama publicly calling on Iran to release Pastor Saeed -- will bring even more attention to the unjust treatment of a U.S. citizen who has been imprisoned for more than a year simply because of his Christian faith."
Naghmeh Abedini, Saeed's wife, wrote on Facebook Feb. 6 that she wept when she heard Obama had called for her husband's release.
"All I could see was each of you standing with us through your prayers, by calling your government officials, signing petitions, and sending the kids and I Bible verses and encouraging us not to give up and to continue," Naghmeh wrote to her supporters. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Each prayer and each voice counts."
Terri Chung, Bae's sister, who resides in the Seattle area, said their family was "delighted" to hear Obama advocate for Bae's release.
"Tears sprung to our eyes as we heard the President affirm our family's pleas," Chung said in a statement at freekennow.com, adding that Obama's commitment "is great reassurance to our weary spirits."
The day before the prayer breakfast, the remaining members of the U.S. Congress to have survived the Korean War -- Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas and Rep. Howard Coble of North Carolina -- sent a letter to North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong Un, asking him to release Bae.
"We thank them as well, as this movement to bring Kenneth home grows even stronger," Chung said.
Every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 has attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast, which attracts thousands from around the world. First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden joined the president at this year's breakfast. The keynote speaker was Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Also during his remarks, Obama noted that "around the world freedom of religion is under threat."
"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," Obama said.
Promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy, the president said, and he looks forward to nominating a new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
"Around the world we're elevating our engagement with faith leaders and making it a regular part of our diplomacy," Obama said.
The United States will "keep standing for religious freedom around the world" because "no society can truly succeed unless it guarantees the rights of all its peoples, including religious minorities," Obama said.
David Curry, president of Open Doors USA, said he was encouraged by Obama's support for persecuted Christians and other faith groups in such places as North Korea and Iran.
"With the number of martyred Christians almost doubling last year from 1,201 to 2,123, according to Open Doors researchers, it is past due for a new focus in the State Department and our entire government to support the value of religious freedom worldwide and in our own country," Curry said in a statement.
In January, Open Doors' World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians listed North Korea as the No. 1 persecutor in the world and Iran No. 9. Open Doors said Christians are the most persecuted faith group in the world.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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