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US National Prayer Breakfast Draws World Political and Religious Leaders


Every year on the first Thursday in February, 3,000 people from around the world gather in Washington for the National Prayer Breakfast. Among them are heads of state, U.S. senators and congressmen, diplomats, and other international political and religious leaders.

Abu Baker al-Shingeti is from Sudan. He first started attending the National Prayer Breakfast about seven years ago. He says the event appealed to him as a Muslim because it gave him an opportunity to reach out to people of other faiths.

"I wanted to relate to them and become friends with them, so that through it I would be better understood, but to also understand them better and see if there is something good we could do together," al-Shingeti said.

He said foreign leaders who attend the breakfast for the first time are often surprised to learn that religious values are important to many American leaders.

"It gives them a sense of how central, how important, religious values and spiritual values are to many decision makers, and that helps create some common ground for relating to them and discussing with them those issues, and maybe create grounds for common action as well," al-Shingeti said.

Michael Cromartie, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a non-profit Washington think tank, says one of the goals of the National Prayer Breakfast is to foster harmony and mutual understanding among people and nations.

"I think a lot of people who do this think many of our conflicts are rooted in misunderstandings," he said. "Anytime you can bring clarity to misunderstandings, then you have done some kind of public good."

Guests at the breakfast, the majority of whom are Christian, come from more than 150 countries. The highlight for many of them is an address from the president of the United States. Last year, President Bush spoke.

"This morning reminds us that prayer has always been one of the great equalizers in American life," he said. "Here we thank God for his great blessings in one voice, regardless of our backgrounds. We recognize in one another the spark of the Divine that gives all human beings their inherent dignity and worth, regardless of religion."

In addition to the president's address, there are other speakers, as well as prayers, songs, and readings from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

Over a three-day period, a series of luncheons, dinners and other events are held which provide an opportunity for foreign dignitaries and American leaders to meet and informally discuss many issues.

Douglas Johnston is the president of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington, which promotes faith-based conflict resolution. He has been involved with the National Prayer Breakfast for more than 30 years and he says it has been the catalyst for much good.

"When South Africa was trying to emerge from apartheid and it looked as though the African National Congress and the Zulu entity under Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi - the Inkatha party - looked like they were going to engage in a civil war. That was prevented at the last moment, because a [Kenyan] fellow by the name of Washington Okumu was able to make contact with Buthelezi and to figure out a way to avoid the bloodshed and find a compromise, and that was because they had a relationship when they met 20 years earlier at one of the national prayer breakfasts in Washington," Johnston said.

The breakfast is hosted by U.S. congressmen and senators, who take part in a prayer breakfast that meets regularly on Capitol Hill.