- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2014

President Obama prayed publicly Thursday for the release of two Americans held separately by North Korea and Iran, and said religious freedom “is under threat” around the world.

Speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Mr. Obama said the U.S. will continue to work for the release of Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary in prison in North Korea, and the Rev. Saeed Abedini of Boise, Idaho, who remains imprisoned in Iran.

“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,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. Bae, 44, of Lynwood, Wash., is being held for unspecified crimes against the state. He was arrested in November 2012 during a tour of the country.
Mr. Abedini, an American citizen who worked to set up churches in Iran for nearly a decade, was arrested in 2012.

“We pray for pastor Saeed Abedini,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”

Mr. Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, told a congressional hearing in December that he has been tortured and told by his Iranian captors that he will be freed if he converts back to Islam. She had criticized the administration for failing to negotiate for his release during denuclearization talks with Iran, but on Thursday thanked Mr. Obama on her Twitter account.

Mr. Abedini is one of three Americans believed to be held by Iran. A Republican lawmaker this week criticized the administration for negotiating with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program while not pushing harder for the Americans’ release.

“Somebody needs to look these people in the eye and tell them they’re not getting another penny, and they’re not getting anything until they do a very simple act of letting three absolutely innocent Americans go free,” said Sen. James E. Risch, Idaho Republican. “This is absolutely outrageous.”

Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law & Justice in Washington, said the group is “hopeful that this new level of engagement by our government … 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.”

Mr. Obama said the U.S. promotes freedom of religion abroad in part to aid its national security policy, because nations that allow freedom of worship are less likely to foster extremist elements.

“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,” Mr. Obama 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.”

He said religious freedom around the world “is under threat” and cited abuses in China, Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, Myanmar, the Central African Republic, Syria and Iran.

Whenever he meets with Chinese leaders, Mr. Obama said, “I stress that realizing China’s potential rests on upholding universal rights, including for Christians and Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims.”

The president said his administration also has emphasized to Israelis and Palestinians that “lasting peace will require freedom of worship and access to holy sites for all faiths.”

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