WASHINGTON — Before President Bush addressed the nation, he held an emotional prayer-filled meeting for an hour with 26 of the nation's religious leaders, including President Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
During the meeting Thursday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House's west wing, Bush told the group he "never felt stronger," and that "strength comes from God," according to an account of the meeting released today by officials in President Hinckley's office.
"This is a struggle against evil. Fortunately, the good is bigger than the evil. We have an opportunity to find some good out of the rubble. This campaign will create a spiritual renewal in America," Bush said.
Each leader talked personally with Bush. President Hinckley said, "I just want you to know, Mr. President, that we are behind you. We pray for you. We love this 'nation under God.' " Bush thanked him, adding, "I'm glad that you could come."
Those in attendance included Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and evangelical leaders. After they offered statements of support, one minister asked the president about the specifics of how he would like people to pray for him.
He asked for prayers that we would have wisdom, strength and clarity of thought and for prayers for his family, adding, "I am most afraid for my children." He told the leaders that his wife, Laura, is "a real rock under fire," a comment that brought "enthusiastic applause from all present," President Hinckley's office said.
Following a benediction by Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, the group stood and sang the first verse of "America the Beautiful."
Before the meeting, the religious leaders gathered for a preliminary meeting in the executive office, where Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, offered a prayer and presented a proposed statement that he hoped would represent the feelings of those present regarding the tragedy of the previous days.
After hearing it read, President Hinckley "voiced his opinion that it was an excellent statement and that he would not hesitate to sign it." As the group gathered at the appointment gate outside the White House and greeted each other, "a Muslim cleric from California indicated that he had recently read President Hinckley's book 'Standing for Something' and was very impressed with the message," the account said.
President Hinckley received the invitation on Tuesday from the White House to attend the meeting and avoided the limelight in his trip to Washington that was so quick and quiet that even officials at the church's International and Government Affairs Office in Washington say they weren't told that he was in town until moments before the meeting.
A sign that the church's public affairs arms didn't know much about the trip is that the White House issued a list of attendees that mistakenly referred to President Hinckley not as president of the church but instead as its "lead bishop."
President Hinckley also did not speak to reporters after the meeting, and he immediately flew back to Salt Lake City aboard the same private jet — owned by the Huntsman Corp. — that had brought him earlier. In a gathering outside the West Wing after the meeting, several leaders offered their comments. "We have both a moral right and a grave obligation as a nation to protect the sanctity of life and the common good," said the statement, which was read afterward to reporters by Roman Catholic Cardinal John Law of Boston.
"We should respond not in the spirit of aggression, but as victims of aggression who must act to prevent further atrocities of terrorism," the statement said.
They met hours before Bush was to speak to a joint session of Congress to outline his plans to root out terrorism.
After the meeting, the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, told reporters, "We need to pray for the president. We need to pray for our nation."
Dr. Rajwant Singh, president of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, welcomed Bush's calls for religious tolerance in the face of retribution attacks on Muslims and Sikhs in the United States.
"We need to come together. Even though my community has been attacked because of turbans and beards . . . the sense of assurance we have gotten from President Bush is amazing. . . . The president has a heart for each and every one of us," he said.
"This was not just a meeting. It was a religious ceremony in front of God," Singh said.
"Never have I experienced the sense of unity in such a diverse group," said Catholic Cardinal Law. "Each of us was profoundly moved by the president, and I might say, he, too, was moved. It was a moment of grace."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the meeting was to "underscore the importance of tolerance, as well as to recognize the role of faith in a time of crisis."