In 1953, the National Prayer Breakfast was founded by Abraham Vereide during Dwight D. Eisenhower's first year as president. The event was designed to bring political, religious and social leaders together to celebrate one of the foundational values in America – freedom of religion.
Throughout the years, every president has attended the National Prayer Breakfast. There have been some keynote speakers, such as Mother Teresa, Tony Blair and Bono.
There have been many notable National Prayer Breakfast events over the years. However, we assert that this could possibly be one of the more significant National Prayer Breakfasts thus far. Why? Because President Obama's speech was focused on freedom of religion; not just in the United States, but around the globe.
"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."
The president went on to talk about how there are many nations which are not upholding this basic human right. He spoke about minority groups facing persecution for their faith, such as the Baha'i in Iran, Christian Coptics in Egypt and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan. He acknowledged that we as a nation must continue to stand for the rights of all people to practice their faiths in peace and freedom, and that the U.S. stands against the ugly tide of anti-Semitism that rears its ugly head all too often.
Some might argue that this speech was just that – a speech. We argue that when the president speaks, many listen, as his platform holds a great deal of weight. Words can influence the actions of other nations, as we have seen throughout history.
However, words must be followed with actions. President Obama must "walk the talk." During his presidency, the president has focused on other issues at the expense of religious freedom and other human rights, not only in this country, but also abroad. Also, for years the Obama administration and other parts of the government refused to classify the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, which operates in Nigeria and its neighboring countries, as an official terrorist organization, despite the urging of many advocacy groups. In 2012, the president announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board at a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This group was charged with ensuring that there would be no more genocides. But we have seen little come from the group, despite the mass carnage in Sudan and elsewhere.
A startling fact from a Pew Research Center survey states that 75 percent of the world's population is living in countries with high levels of religious restrictions. And sadly, this number is increasing. Of the 50 countries on the Open Doors 2014 World Watch List, which ranks the countries where Christians face the most severe persecution, 66 percent saw an increase in persecution from the previous year. An Open Doors field worker said that at the current rate of the exodus of Christians from Iraq, due to persecution and violence, there could be no Christians left in the country by 2020.
One significant promise of action from the National Prayer Breakfast was the president's announcement to appoint an ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. The position was created in 1998 to monitor religious persecution, recommend and implement policies and advise the State Department and administration.
The president must fulfill this promise quickly, as we are witnessing deteriorating religious freedom in such places as Syria, Libya, Iran and the Central African Republic. The previous ambassador – Suzanne Johnson Cook – resigned last fall. And before she was appointed, the position was vacant under Obama's administration for approximately one and a half years. The new ambassador can't be a figure head. This person needs to have the power to speak out loudly and clearly for religious freedom for all faiths, even to our allies such as Saudi Arabia, which is ranked No. 6 on the World Watch List. Additionally, the new appointee must have a solid history of inter-faith religious advocacy on an international scale, in order to accomplish the tough task ahead of him or her.
Finally, we urge the president to put the weight of his office behind the passage of the bill for a Special Envoy for Religious Freedom in the Near East and South Central Asia. The bill for the new position was overwhelmingly passed by the House. The bill is waiting to be scheduled for a vote in the Senate. We urge the Obama administration to ensure that this bill becomes law.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who chairs the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Near Eastern, Southern and Central Asian Affairs, said last December that "the recent story about the likely kidnapping of Catholic nuns in Syria is just the latest example of an escalating epidemic of religious persecution in the Middle East. Attacks on Christians, Jews, Baha'i, Ahmadiyya Muslims and other religious minorities are occurring with greater frequency. The United States can and should play a key role in exposing these human rights violations and working to promote religious liberty in a region that is the birthplace for so many of the world's faith traditions."
We could not agree more.
So we, a Rabbi and a Christian leader, join forces to thank the president for his speech. We applaud his message on religious freedom. But now these words must be followed up with action.