Leah Barkoukis

Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Thursday, President Obama focused on religious freedom in other countries, saying that it matters to national security at home and plays a prominent role in the country’s foreign policy.

"Around the world, freedom of religion is under threat, and that is what I want to reflect on this morning," the president told the audience. "We see governments engaging in discriminating and violence against the faith. We sometimes see religion twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution against other people just because of who they are, how they pray, or who they love."

He also called on the audience to pray for those held captive because of their religious beliefs, including Saeed Abedini, who’s imprisoned in Iran, and Kenneth Bae, who’s being held in North Korea.

“Let us pray for Kenneth Bae. ... His family wants him home, and the United States will continue to do everything in our power to secure his release,” Obama said.

According to Open Doors’ 2014 World Watch list, North Korea is the worst country in the world to be a Christian, and Iran follows close behind at No. 9.

"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 said.

Testifying before Congress in December, Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, said that she never expected she’d have to battle her own government for her husband’s freedom. She was thankful, however, that Obama discussed her husband's case publicly on Thursday.

More information on Saeed and Kenneth can be found here and here.

Update: The ACLJ weighs in:

"We are extremely pleased that President Obama publicly recognized Pastor Saeed's plight," said Jordan Sekulow, Executive Director of the ACLJ. "With President Obama highlighting this tragic case of religious persecution, 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. We're grateful for President Obama's remarks and call on Iran to release Pastor Saeed so that he can return to his family in Idaho."


Leah Barkoukis

Leah Barkoukis is the Managing Editor at Townhall Magazine.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography