WASHINGTON (Feb. 4)
President Clinton and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D- Conn.) went out of their way to make Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat feel welcome at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast.
Sending a clear signal to conservative Christians and a handful of American Jews who had raised objections to Arafat’s attendance at Thursday’s gathering, both Clinton and Lieberman asked the audience of thousands to pray for the Palestinian leader.
Arafat, whose presence was purposefully ignored in remarks by the event’s chairman, Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), appeared to relish the attention and greeted a stream of well-wishers before the remarks began.
The controversy surrounding Arafat’s attendance brought more prominence to the event than usual. But that was not the only controversy among some Jewish activists, who questioned the national nature of the event because of its emphasis on Christian themes. The breakfast for many years has been sponsored by a private evangelical Christian group.
After the gathering, Clinton met briefly with Arafat.
Arafat thanked Clinton for his remarks at the breakfast and pledged to continue to work toward meeting Israeli security concerns, according to a White House official.
During the 20-minute meeting, Clinton told Arafat that the United States opposes unilateral acts, including the declaration of a Palestinian state, the official said.
The Christian Coalition, among others, had attacked Largent for inviting Arafat to the breakfast, which began 47 years ago as a chance for members of Congress to offer prayers to the president.
In his remarks, Clinton called on those in attendance to “pray for Chairman Arafat and the Palestinians, for the government of Israel, and for Mrs. Leah Rabin and her children,” who also attended the breakfast.
“If Leah Rabin and her family can continue their struggle for peace after the prime minister’s assassination, then we can continue to believe in our better selves,” Clinton said.
The president also offered a prayer for King Hussein, who is battling cancer.
Hours later, Jordanian officials said the king was in critical condition after his body rejected a bone marrow transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The monarch was returning home to Jordan, where he will be treated for the failure of internal organs.
“I ask you to pray for peace, for the peacemakers and for peace within each of our hearts.”
Lieberman, the Senate’s only Orthodox Jew, reached out during his benediction at the breakfast “particularly” to Arafat, his deputy Abu Mazen and also to Rabin and her children.
“Abraham loved his son Ishmael as he did his son Isaac,” Lieberman said, referring to the patriarchs of Judaism and Islam.
“We pray that you will bring that truth to Chairman Arafat and to the leaders of Israel and you will guide them in the paths of peace so that their children and grandchildren may truly one day not just live in peace but sit together,” he said.
The father of an American killed in a terrorist attack in Gaza had opposed Arafat’s presence but requested to attend the breakfast after organizers refused to rescind the invite.
In a brief interview after the breakfast, Stephen Flatow, said he had no problems with the prayers offered for Arafat.
“I know that the leaders of the country believe in the peace process,” he said. “I have some personal issues with him,” he said, referring to Arafat. Flatow met briefly with Clinton before the breakfast to discuss obstacles the State Department has erected against his legal quest to collect damages against Iran. A federal court has awarded Flatow damages against Iran for funding the Islamic Jihad, which was implicated in the attack that killed his daughter Alisa.
Flatow said that Clinton promised to look into the matter.
Some members of Congress boycotted the event, citing Arafat’s presence. Among the members of congress who boycotted the breakfast was freshman Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.).
“The man is a terrorist, has not renounced terrorism and as far as I’m concerned has not lived up to his end of the bargain,” in the peace accords with Israel,” she said in an interview.
“Until he does that I see absolutely no reason to be honoring him.”
Those attending the breakfast included members of Congress, representative of the diplomatic corps and members of the president’s Cabinet.
In his remarks, Clinton also called on all people to use their religion for peace, not war.
“No faith is blameless in saying that they have taken up arms against other faiths, other races because it was God’s will that they do so,” he said.
“Even though Adolf Hitler preached a perverted form of Christianity, God did not want him to prevail. But I also know that when we take up arms or words against one another, we must be very careful in invoking the name of our Lord.”
Concern over the Christian nature of the breakfast prompted at least one rabbi, who asked not to be identified, to reject an invitation.
For its part, in a letter to Largent, the Anti-Defamation League expressed concern that some participants “may feel less than welcome by the invitation’s use of this exclusively Christian phrase: `Many people throughout the world are finding through the Spirit of Jesus a fellowship that is helping to build true community in the family of nations.'”
Citing the invitation, author Max Lucado said in his keynote speech that the event was “not under any religious or political auspices but in the spirit of Jesus.”
Some Jewish officials said some organizers had told them that they believe that Jesus is a respected figure in all faiths and that prayers to “Jesus” as opposed to “Jesus Christ” do not exclude Jews.
Some in the Jewish community say the problem centers around the portrayal of the breakfast as an official congressional event.
In fact, Clinton, speaking later in the day, referred to the event as “the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast that Congress sponsors.”
In addition to Lieberman, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the author and talk show host, spoke at the breadfast. Schlessinger, who has called on Clinton to resign, read from Deuteronomy.
Lieberman, who strongly criticized Clinton during the early days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, surprised many in attendance by asking all to pray to God that “at this time of difficulty for the president, that you hear his prayers, that you help him in the work he’s doing with his family and his clergy, that you accept his atonement.
“So Lord,” he said, “we pray that you will not only restore his soul and lead him in the path of righteousness for your name and sake but help us join with him to heal the breach and begin the reconciliation to restore our national souls.”