Thursday, February 5, 2004

President Bush heaped praise on U.S. military forces during the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, saying American troops are illustrating “the great American tradition of religious tolerance” by some of their deeds in Iraq.

“The Iraqi people are mostly Muslims and we respect the faith they practice,” Mr. Bush told almost 5,000 listeners at the 52nd annual National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton and Towers.

“Our troops have helped to refurbish mosques, have treated Muslim clerics with deference and are mindful of Islam’s holy days. Some of our troops are Muslims themselves, because America welcomes people of every faith,” he said.

The president, who squeezed in a visit to the prayer breakfast before flying to South Carolina to speak on seaport security in Charleston, used several illustrations of American good will in Iraq.

“America’s armed forces have shown great skill in battle, perseverance under extremely difficult conditions,” he said. “They’ve also shown the best of our country in other ways as well. The world has seen the kind of people America sends forth from our towns and neighborhoods, who serve in freedom’s cause.

“They are the sort of people who when the fighting is done, are kind and compassionate toward innocent citizens. And their compassion, as much as their courage, has made this country proud,” he added.

The seating of newly reinstalled Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs at the head table elicited comment from the president, who told the crowd that the venerable coach is respected “for his convictions and character.”

“Joe, we’re glad to see you back on the job,” the president added. “I’m all in favor of second terms,” he said to laughter.

The coach said the existence of God is like knowing that behind every watch, there is a watchmaker.

“The way the world is crafted, everyone of us must say if there’s a world like that, there’s a world maker,” he said. “If God is our head coach in the game of life — and you and I are playing in the game of life — who wants to lose in the biggest game of all?”

The breakfast, which was attended by dozens of members of Congress, diplomats and other attendees from 150 nations, had two Baptists as keynote speakers: Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, and former Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., Oklahoma Republican. Mr. Lewis said his involvement in the 1960s civil rights movement “is an extension of my faith.”

“Some people ask why I am not bitter,” he said about the rough treatment he was given, “but I say hate is too great a burden to bear.” Christ, he added, “taught me to love all my brothers and sisters; taught me how to forgive.”

Mr. Watts said reconciliation, love and forgiveness cannot be mandated or legislated.

“Only God can change a heart,” he said.

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