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Obama Says Religious Faith Sustains Him Amid Challenges

President Barack Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Feb 3, 2011
President Barack Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Feb 3, 2011

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In remarks at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, President Barack Obama said challenges he has faced during the past two years, including the U.S. economic recession, have strengthened his religious faith.  Mr. Obama also spoke about the national political discourse, and about the violence in Egypt.

The prayer breakfast has been attended by every sitting president since 1953 when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, with guests from some 130 countries along with members of Congress and celebrities.

Mr. Obama attended his first in 2009, speaking about his personal faith and religious heritage, and announcing establishment of a White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

On Thursday, the president began with words to one attendee, astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  The congresswoman is among 13 people wounded in the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, and is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.

The president also briefly discussed the violence in Egypt.

"We are also mindful of the violence we are now seeing in the Middle East and we pray that the violence in Egypt will end and that the rights and aspirations of the Egyptian people will be realized and a better day will dawn over Egypt and throughout the world," said Obama.

In reflective, but often humorous remarks, Mr. Obama said his Christian faith has been a sustaining force, particularly as he and his wife Michelle have heard their faith being questioned from time to time.

He also referred to the economic hardships millions of Americans face, including those who have lost homes or who are without health care, saying his faith has helped him avoid being overwhelmed as he faced key decisions.

"It is my faith then, that Biblical injunction to serve the least of these, that keeps me going and that keeps me from being overwhelmed," added Obama.  "It is faith that reminds me that despite being one very imperfect man, I can still help whoever I can, however I can, wherever I can, for as long as I can and that somehow God will buttress these efforts."

While he said religious institutions play an important role in helping the poor in the United States and around the world, the president said the private sector can only do so much.  The government, he said, must play a role in a caring and just society.

Mr. Obama also returned to the theme of civility he sounded in remarks last year, and referred to what he called a "bitterly polarized" national political debate.

"Over the past two years the nature of these obligations, the proper role of government has obviously been the subject of enormous controversy," said Obama.  "The debates have been fierce as one side's version of compassion and community may be interpreted by the other side as an oppressive and irresponsible expansion of the state or an unacceptable restriction on individual freedom."

At a time when people are listening to voices in the media that tend to reinforce existing biases, Mr. Obama said it is useful to remember that "none of us has all the answers" saying the challenge is to balance uncertainty and humility with the need to fight for deeply-held convictions.

"I pray for this wisdom every day," Obama said.  "I pray that God will show me and all of us the limits of our understanding and open our ears and our hearts to brothers and sisters with different points of view.   That such reminders of our shared hopes and our shared dreams and our shared limitations as children of God will reveal a way forward that we can travel together."

Organized by the Fellowship Foundation, a Christian group, the prayer breakfast attracts protests from gay rights, atheist and other groups against the involvement of the nation's top political figure in the event.

Last year, protesters demonstrated outside the event alleging the Fellowship Foundation supported a law in Uganda that criminalized homosexuality.  President Obama denounced the Ugandan law as "odious", and the White House recently issued a statement condemning the killing of Ugandan gay activist David Kato.  

In remarks to the prayer breakfast, Mark Kelly said his wife Gabrielle Giffords is improving by the day, saying he hopes that the tragic shootings in Tucson help contribute to a greater good and that Americans will "work better together."

Related report by VOA's Ravi Khanna

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