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Obama's Middle East Speech: Religious Leaders Respond

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Imam Mohamed Magid, President of the Islamic Society of North America, attended Obama's speech at the State Department. | AP

Religious leaders are responding to President Barack Obama's ‬much-anticipated speech on the Middle East, in which the president said that "all faiths must be respected" and suggested "bridges be built among them.‬"

Much of the sweeping speech addressed political and economic issues in light of recent democratic movements in the majority-Muslim region. Obama promised U.S. support for democracy, human rights and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But Obama, who famously addressed the Muslim world from Cairo University in two years ago in a speech focused on Islam, also discussed religion several times in Thursday's comments.

"We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders -- whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran," Obama said in the hour-long speech.

"It was very important for the president to call for the respect of religious minorities who are not Muslim. For me, as an imam, I'd like to see the [Muslim] community respond and take action to that," said Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America, who attended the speech in Washington, D.C.

In recent months, the plight of religious minorities in majority Muslim countries has made international headlines.

"I think his message was to the American Muslim Community, too. Religious tolerance and respect of women has to be the top priority of any democracy," said Magid.

"Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain," Obama said.

The Rev. Timotheus Soliman, a Coptic Christian priest in Miramar, Fl., said Obama made similar statements about religious tolerance in his Cairo speech that "went unnoticed."

"Didn't he talk about the Copts last time? There is a lot to pray for and things haven't gotten better back home," he said.

Obama's remarks on religion were significantly less pointed than those in his 2009 speech, when he said wanted to "seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world."

Eboo Patel, president of Chicago-based nonprofit Interfaith Youth Core, said he was "struck by Obama's comments on the tremendous resource represented by young people in the region, and how what we are witnessing over there traces the arc of American history, from revolution to sectarian conflict to the spreading of freedom and equality."

"Just as young people pushed for universal values here and built bridges of cooperation between different communities, so are they doing that there. That presents great opportunities for partnership," said Patel.

What will likely be the most controversial part of Obama's speech was his call for a restoration of pre-1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, a significant shift in U.S. policy.

‪Reaction to the speech from Jewish leaders varied.

"I was most struck by the President's assertion that we don't need to accept how things are, but can work toward how they could be - with humility," said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. "While I am not sure that such humility about the role of history and indigenous culture was a part of all that he suggested we could achieve or help others to achieve, I appreciate the President's commitment to what I would call hopeful realism."

Abraham H. Foxman, Anti-Defamation League national director, released a statement applauding Obama's support for "universal rights" and opposition to " the use of force and political repression."

Foxman also directly addressed Obama's comments on Israel and Palestine, saying, "The Palestinians must heed the President's warnings about imprudent and self-defeating actions."

"The economic reforms and economic modernization as proposed by President Obama cannot succeed without religious and cultural reforms in the Arab World," said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. "Muslims must choose between moderation and militancy, tolerance and terrorism."

Obama's speech comes after a poll released this week by the Pew Research Center that foud the United States' popularity has declined within the last year in many Muslim majority nations.

The poll was conducted in March and April, before U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden on May 2 in northern Pakistan. It surveyed about 1,000 people each in Egypt, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories and Turkey. Another 2,000 were polled in Pakistan.

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