(Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
Religious liberty advocates have applauded the recent remarks of President Barack Obama regarding the plight of Christians overseas.
At the 62nd annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., President Obama spoke about religious intolerance abroad and mentioned figures such as imprisoned Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini.
"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," said Obama.
"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."
Rev. Rob Schenck of the Evangelical Church Alliance, who has worked with others for the release of pastor Abedini, released a statement Thursday expressing his approval.
"This is the breakthrough so many have hoped for, prayed for, and worked for, for so long," said Schenck, who reportedly got emotional when hearing the remarks made Thursday morning.
"This call by the President needed to happen. We are enormously relieved to hear it and thank the President for taking a risk in saying it publicly."
At the Washington Hilton, Obama spoke before hundreds of guests from across the United States and from an estimated 130 nations regarding the issue of religious persecution.
"And as we pray for all prisoners of conscience, whatever their faiths, wherever they're held, let's imagine what it must be like for them," said Obama.
"We may not know their names, but all around the world there are people who are waking up in cold cells, facing another day of confinement, another day of unspeakable treatment, simply because they are affirming God."
The commander in chief also mentioned Christian missionary Kenneth Bae, who has been held for several months in North Korea.
"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," said Obama.
Dr. David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, said in a statement that he was "encouraged" by the president's words.
"I am encouraged by President Obama's support for persecuted Christians and other faith groups in such places as North Korea, Iran and around the world," said Curry.
"…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."
Some were more critical of Obama's remarks given the context of the Administration's domestic policies. Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser with The Catholic Association, stated that Obama's words run against the Department of Health and Human Services' controversial birth control mandate.
"This morning at the National Prayer Breakfast the President affirmed the dignity and right to religious liberty of all human beings, meanwhile here at home his administration faces the largest religious liberty lawsuit in American history," said Ferguson.
"This administration insists on forcing people of faith to violate their consciences by providing abortion pills in their health plans - including the Little Sisters of the Poor, nuns who care for the needy and dying."