Obama pushes for release of Americans held in North Korea, Iran

President Obama addressed members of Congress and other leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday. (The Associated Press)

President Obama called on North Korea and Iran to release two Americans held captive since 2012, using an address at the National Prayer Breakfast to demand that foreign nations respect religious freedoms and to declare that the men “deserve to be free.”

Obama said Kenneth Bae, a missionary held in North Korea, and Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor held in Iran, were victims of religious intolerance by foreign governments and that the United States would continue to press for their release.

“Around the world, freedom of religion is under threat,” Obama said, addressing the annual gathering of religious leaders in Washington. “We see governments engaging in discrimination and violence against the faith.”

The president emphasized that religious freedom is a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy, and he named China, Burma, Israel, Palestine, Syria and Sudan and South Sudan as places where his administration has been pressing ruling regimes to respect diversities of faith.

Obama acknowledged that the United States maintains important economic partnerships and strategic interests in countries that do not live up to such American standards, but he pledged that his administration would continue to push a message of tolerance.

“Promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy,” he said. “I’m proud no nation on earth has done more to stand up for freedom of religion around the world than the United States.”

Bae, an American father of three, was arrested in North Korea in 2012 and accused of preaching against the Pyongyang government. He has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Although the Obama administration has pushed for his release, his case gained added notoriety when former NBA star Dennis Rodman made two trips to Pyongyang for exhibition basketball games.

In January, Rodman suggested during an interview with CNN that Bae was rightfully imprisoned and that he could do nothing to convince North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un to release him. Rodman later apologized for his comments, which the White House denounced.

“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.

He also mentioned Abedini, an Iranian American pastor arrested in Iran in the summer of 2012 and sentenced to eight years in prison for evangelical activities in that country.

“More broadly, we’ve made the case no society can truly succeed unless they guarantee the rights of all people,” Obama said.

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