WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday insisted that protecting religious freedom is a U.S. priority, while defending his recent halt of refugee admissions as a necessary step to protect that freedom.
“Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us, and the world is under serious, serious threat in so many different ways — and I’ve never seen it so much and so openly since I took the position of president,” President Trump stated at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2.
“There are those who would seek to enter our country for the purpose of spreading violence or oppressing other people based upon their faith or their lifestyle — not right,” he said. “We will not allow a beachhead of intolerance to spread in our nation.”
Last week, Trump ordered a halt to refugee admissions for 120 days — until further notice for Syrian refugees — and a temporary ban on immigration from seven countries in the Middle East and Africa. The order was met with criticism from the U.S. bishops and humanitarian organizations.
On Thursday, the president spoke at the annual National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton Hotel, a tradition that dates back to 1953. Each year on the first Thursday of February, religious and civic leaders gather in prayer for the country.
Vice President Mike Pence was in attendance as well as King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Michael Wear, former director of faith outreach for the Obama 2012 campaign, said that, according to a “trusted source,” at least half a dozen people who were invited to the prayer breakfast were unable to attend due to the new travel restrictions.
President Trump emphasized the global threat of religious violence, citing “acts of wanton slaughter against religious minorities” and noting that “terrorism is a fundamental threat to religious freedom.”
“We have seen peace-loving Muslims brutalized, victimized, murdered and oppressed by ISIS killers. We have seen threats of extermination against the Jewish people,” he said. “We have seen a campaign of ISIS and genocide against Christians where they cut off heads.”
He pledged to stop such violence and “to defend and protect religious liberty in our land,” insisting that Americans must live in “a tolerant society” where they “can feel safe and secure.”
“In recent days, we have begun to take necessary action to achieve that goal,” he continued.
Last week, his executive order on “protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States” suspended refugee admissions into the U.S. for 120 days and immigration from seven countries for 60 days while his administration would investigate the security of the refugee-resettlement program and the quality of information-gathering on foreign nationals seeking to enter the U.S.
“Our nation has the most generous immigration system in the world,” he said, but some people “exploit that generosity.” He promised to ensure that future immigrants and refugees “fully embrace our values of religious and personal liberty and that they reject any form of oppression and discrimination.”
“We will be a safe country, we will be a free country, and we will be a country where all citizens can practice their beliefs without fear of hostility or fear of violence,” he said.
Earlier in the program, the Senate chaplain, Barry Black, emphasized the power of prayer.
“I agree with Tennyson: that more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of,” he said. “My friends, when we make our voices heard in heaven, it makes a palpable difference.”
He added that, first, “we pray from a sense of need,” saying, “My friends, God wants us to pray when we need him,” and “we ought to pray that God’s hand will be on our president.”
“Secondly, pray with intimacy,” he insisted, pointing to Jesus addressing God the Father as “Abba,” or “daddy.”
“Pray like Hannah,” he said, pointing to the mother of the prophet Samuel, who “prayed with such specificity and such intimacy” for a baby that the priest Eli “thought she was inebriated.”
Also, “pray for those who govern,” he added, “so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity.”
In addition, Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and John Boozman, R-Ark., heads of the Senate’s weekly prayer breakfast group, and Reps. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., and Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), heads of the House weekly prayer breakfast group, spoke, highlighting their common prayer, which transcends political party lines.
“We haven’t come here to celebrate power or money or politics. We’ve come here together to pray. And it may be the understatement of the century that Washington, D.C. needs prayer,” Coons stated.
At the breakfast, Trump also pledged to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofit organizations and their representatives from officially endorsing political candidates or participating in their campaigns, lest they lose their tax-exempt status.
“Jefferson asked: Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed the conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” Trump said, noting, “Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs.”
“That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
He had earlier noted, “Freedom is a gift from God.”
He also emphasized the religious heritage of America: “This gathering is a testament of the power of faith.”
“America is a nation of believers,” he added.
He also quoted John 15:13 when discussing how he met with the family of a fallen Navy Seal, Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens, 36, of Peoria, Illinois, on Feb. 1. He thanked those serving the country in the armed services, as well.
In addition, at the breakfast, he thanked people for their prayers for him and said Americans are united in the firm knowledge that we are all equal in the eyes of God.
“As long as we have God, we are never, ever, alone,” he told the audience toward the end of his address. “God will always give us solace and strength.”
Register staff contributed to this report.