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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The war in Iraq has been a "time of testing for America," President Bush said Thursday, marking a somber, patriotic National Day of Prayer service that contrasted with last year's event, which had the air of a Christian revival.
"Americans have been praying for the safety of our troops and the protection of innocent life in Iraq," Bush told about 150 military chaplains, religious leaders and others guests in the East Room of the White House before leaving for California to announce the end of the combat operations in Iraq. "Americans prayed that war would not be necessary, and now pray that peace will be just and lasting."
At the same event in 2002, guests enthusiastically exclaimed "Yes" and "Amen" throughout the service. But this year, guests sat quietly through a series of prayers and songs. The president nodded his head and rocked gently in his seat as soloist Julie Keim from the Washington National Cathedral sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and a choir from the cathedral sang "The Lord Bless You and Keep You."
In support of the troops, Bush noted Americans have registered online to adopt a member of the armed forces deployed in Iraq and have donned prayer bracelets. A woman in Fountain City, Wis., has collected at least 80 Bibles to send to those serving in Iraq, he said. And in Greene, Ohio, he said a group of parishioners at Queen of Heaven Catholic Church has made 2,000 rosaries for the troops.
"We continue to pray for the recovery of the wounded and for the comfort of all who have lost a loved one," Bush said. "The scripture says: 'The Lord is near to all who call on Him."'
The entire service was wrapped in patriotic themes. Shirley Dobson, leader of the National Day of Prayer Task Force and wife of James Dobson, founder of the conservative Christian ministry Focus on Family in Colorado, praised the troops.
"President John F. Kennedy once deemed America the watchman on the walls of world freedom," she said. "Just as our troops stand watch to protect our way of life, we must stay alert by going to our knees, petitioning the creator on behalf of this great land."
In a lighter moment, Luis Palau, a Hispanic evangelist who wrote this year's prayer for the nation, greeted the president on behalf of all the immigrants, especially Hispanics.
"I carry my passport to prove I'm an American so if the INS comes, I have my passport," he said, touching the breast pocket of his suit. The president chuckled, but then leaned forward in his seat and bowed his head as Palau prayed:
"Deliver us, oh God, from all oppressions, conspiracies and assaults from our enemies. We recommit ourselves to trust, serve and obey you, oh God, and for us who are Christians, we pray this in Jesus' holy name. Amen."
The event prompted protests from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, director of the group, said the Constitution gives Congress and the president no authority over religion. "They ought to stick to governmental concerns," said Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
In recent years, the event has been co-opted by religious right groups trying to promote the fundamentalist Christian political agenda, Lynn said. He adds: "I don't look to government officials to tell me when and how to pray and I don't think most other Americans do either."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)