(RNS) President Obama formally extended his ear to evangelicals ahead of the 2012 election, meeting with top leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals in the White House for about 30 minutes on Wednesday (Oct. 12).
International religious freedom was a top priority for the group as they thanked Obama for condemning the charges against Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian pastor facing execution for his conversion to Christianity.

George Wood, the general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, cited other cases of people who been persecuted in cases around the world.

“Someone commented that all these things relate to issues of religious freedom,” NAE President Leith Anderson said in an interview after the meeting. “He (Obama) did a lot of listening.”

The group also discussed immigration reform and tricky legal questions surrounding whether religious organizations can hire based on religious beliefs while receiving federal funds, he said.

Discussions included the concern for budget cuts, including proposed reductions in funding for overseas development, and Obama referred to his desire for further job creation.

One issue that did not come up was abortion, which has been a sensitive point of divergence for both sides.

“Issues that relate to the poor we would address as pro-life issues, but it was not specifically a discussion on abortion,” Anderson said. “It was not intentionally omitted. We had a limited amount of time.”

One participant in the meeting said Obama and NAE leaders acknowledged a “respectful disagreement” over same-sex marriage, and NAE officials advocated for the right of military chaplains to voice their opposition to homosexuality following the repeal of the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy.

The NAE, which represents 40 denominations across some 45,000 local churches, extends a request to meet with the president each year, Anderson said. This is the first time Obama has accepted.

“Evangelicals have had good access to the Obama White House, at least that’s my experience. He clearly knows where we disagree on issues like marriage and abortion and he acknowledged that we have significant differences,” Anderson said.

“We also talked about similar concerns and that he can be helpful to us in protecting the lives of Christians persecuted in other countries. He indicated that’s a priority.”

Previous presidents have also met with the NAE. At the 1983 NAE convention in Orlando, President Reagan delivered his famous speech referring to the Soviet Communist system as “the Evil Empire.”

“Did we have something of that magnitude that happened today?” Anderson said. “It wasn’t that type of setting and circumstance.”

The Wednesday meeting came after the White House held a Tuesday night screening for 80 religious leaders of “58,” a new film on global poverty. Leaders from several Christian agencies, such as Compassion International, World Relief, Food for the Hungry and International Justice Mission met with members of the Obama administration to watch the film and discuss ways to help the poor.

Christian-based relief organizations have been adjusting to the new administration, said Stephan Bauman, president and CEO of World Relief, the NAE’s affiliated humanitarian arm. While President George W. Bush’s pet project was global AIDS relief, Christian agencies hope to see continued funding through President Obama’s Feed the Future program, Bauman said.

“The president is in a totally different place in Congress and the economy, so it’s hard to compare the two administrations,” he said. “We can’t deny that it’s an important time for the White House with the re-election. That’s not stated or said anywhere. We don’t doubt their genuineness.”

Relief groups are watching legislation on Capitol Hill that would cut foreign aid budgets, potentially impacting many international organizations. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the case Wednesday that the government should maintain its 1 percent of foreign aid in federal spending.

“It’s a burden for us to keep making the case. … But then I’ll get called by a conservative member of Congress who asks, `Why aren’t we doing more in the Horn of Africa? Those people are starving.’ And so we have to keep making the case, and we are,” Clinton told The Associated Press. “We have religious groups who are our allies on foreign aid.”

Scott Todd, who leads Compassion International’s global advocacy efforts, said an upcoming study from the Barna Group suggests that 20 percent of Protestants and 16 percent of Catholics have traveled abroad on some form of ministry or mission trip. Christians under 35 are 50 percent more likely to give to causes to eradicate extreme poverty, the study suggests.

“Poverty is no longer an abstract issue,” Todd said. “I think the risk in the current climate is that it becomes politicized. It’s not. It’s always been bipartisan.”

(Daniel Burke contributed to this report.)

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