WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, at a prayer breakfast with political and religious leaders Thursday, decried religious and ethnic intolerance around the world and said Washington politicians are guilty of "dishonest demonization" in the heat of political battle.

The president and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, joined several thousand people at the Washington Hilton for the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering of members of Congress, Cabinet members, clergy and lay people. It is a ritual dating back to 1952 when a group of lawmakers gathered to pray for newly elected President Dwight Eisenhower and his government."This is a special year for me because I'm not coming back, at least in my present position," said Clinton. He will leave office next Jan. 20 but hopes to return to Washington from time to time as a Senate spouse, if his wife is successful in her campaign.

Clinton urged reconciliation among rival groups around the world.

"Today, the Irish peace process is strained by a lack of trust between Republican Catholics and Protestant Unionists," he said. "In the Middle East, with all its hope, we are still having to work very hard to overcome the profoundest of suspicions between Israeli Jews and Palestinian and Syrian Arabs."

He also noted rivalries on the Indian subcontinent, in Bosnia and Kosovo and elsewhere.

"Here at home we still see Asians, blacks, gays, even in one instance last year children at a Jewish school, subject to attacks just because of who they are," the president said.

"And here in Washington we are not blameless," the president added. "For we often, too, forget in the heat of political battle our common humanity.

"We slip from honest difference which is healthy into dishonest demonization. We ignore when we're all tight and in a fight all those biblical admonitions we profess to believe."