The National Prayer Breakfast, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, quietly reaffirmed its long-standing Christian emphasis in February.
In the shadow of September 11, organizers refrained from including a Muslim in the main program. The omission follows three years of controversy concerning the inclusion of Muslim imams in the program. The Fellowship, an extremely low profile Christian parachurch organization headed by Doug Coe, organizes the event. Senate and House prayer groups are sponsors.
"Several of us wrote letters or sat down with Doug Coe and asked him to reconsider including a Muslim prayer or reading in the breakfast. I guess that he listened to us," said one evangelical leader who wishes to remain anonymous. Coe was not available for comment. Observers say privately that they expect the event to return to a more pluralistic program in the future.
The breakfast is not officially an evangelical or Christian event. Indeed, this year President Bush referred to his Christian faith only obliquely. The insight that sorrows can bring wisdom and strength, he said, "is central … to the faith of us who find hope and comfort in a cross."
Since its inception in 1953, the event has mostly featured evangelical speakers and prayers, but Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish leaders have also participated.
In 1999, evangelicals and Jews loudly protested an invitation to Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat. Organizers often face a delicate task when religious intentions intersect with political tensions. During a mostly political speech last year by a Tibetan Buddhist leader, Chinese participants walked out, muttering, "This is highly offensive." This year, Chinese representatives stiffened whenever representatives from Taiwan passed by.
Organizer John Nakamura defended the awkward juxtapositions. "If you remember that Jesus said love one another, then you will understand these strange combinations."
The event's origins go back to 1930s-era evangelistic breakfast prayer meetings organized by Methodist Abraham Vereide, according to historian David Lauch. Dwight Eisenhower hosted the first Presidential Prayer Breakfast in 1953, and organizers later changed the name. Former Watergate figure Charles Colson has credited the event with the birth of Prison Fellowship.
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Whitehouse.gov has the transcript, video, and audio of President Bush's comments at the Prayer Breakfast.
At the breakfast, Bush said that since September 11, he has spent much time praying like "millions of Americans." Christianity Today'sNovember cover story examined President Bush's faith.
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