WASHINGTON — Barack Obama called for the release of an American pastor imprisoned in Iran and a U.S. missionary serving hard labor in North Korea during the annual National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday.
Obama centered on religious freedom during his speech, seeking tolerance for all religions around the world.
“History shows that nations that uphold the rights of their people, including the freedom of religion, are ultimately more just and more peaceful and more successful,” he said. “Nations that do not uphold these rights sow the bitter seeds of instability and violence and extremism. So, freedom of religion matters to our national security.”
During the presentation, Obama spoke publicly for the first time about the plight of two Americans who have been seeking intervention from the U.S. government after they were punished for their Christian faith.
“We pray for Pastor Saeed Abedini,” Obama said. “He’s been held in Iran for more than 18 months, sentenced to eight years in prison on charges related to his Christian beliefs.”
“And as we continue to work for his freedom, 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,” he added.
As previously reported, Abedini, a former Muslim turned Christian, left Iran in 2005 and moved to the United States with his wife and children to find religious freedom. In September 2012, he traveled back to Iran to build an orphanage and visit his parents—and was about to return to the states—when he was taken into custody.
Abedini was later charged with threatening the national security of Iran, and for attempting to turn youth in the nation away from Islam and toward Christianity. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and has spent over a year behind bars.
“Let us pray for Kenneth Bae,” Obama also requested during the prayer breakfast. “His family wants him home, and the United States will continue to do everything in our power to secure his release.”
As previously reported, Bae, who operates a tourist company in Washington state, was arrested not far from the city of Yanji in November 2012, where some Christian groups provide aid to North Korean refugees. It is stated that Bae has made a number of trips to North Korea to assist orphaned children.
While the exact reason for his charges of committing “hostile [and religious] acts to bring down the government” has not been made known, Bae was sentenced to 15 years hard labor, and recently called upon the American government in a North Korean press conference to “make more active efforts and pay more attention” to his plight.
Following Obama’s remarks surrounding Abedini and Bae, Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, told reporters that she was thankful that Obama spoke up for her husband, but added that she wished he had done so sooner.
“This is the first sign of him speaking out and I do hope it will continue,” she stated. “I had hoped that my government would have [responded] sooner and [that I would have] felt more supported and felt reassured.”
According to the Associated Press, the Bae family also expressed gratitude after learning that Obama had vowed to work toward Bae’s release, stating that they hoped his comments would result in further discussion between the U.S. and North Korea.
Photo: Elizabeth Cromwell