After tough week, Trump looks for a lift at Liberty University

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures while attending a “celebration of military mothers" at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Saturday is set to deliver the commencement address – his first as president – to Liberty University, the nation’s largest Christian college, where he is expected to find to a friendly audience after a week of turmoil in Washington.

Trump has been closeted in the White House all week, making only a few, brief public appearances after he took the highly unusual and fraught step of abruptly firing James Comey as FBI director on Tuesday.

Dismissing the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at a time when the agency probes alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election has overshadowed Trump’s push to boost jobs through tax reform and a massive infrastructure program.

The Lynchburg, Virginia, college should provide a receptive crowd for Trump’s economic message. He campaigned there during his run for office and was bolstered by the endorsement of its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., who helped secure support from religious conservatives.

“He’s going to tell them what he wants to do to make their careers run more smoothly and make it easier for them to raise families,” Falwell told WDBJ7, a CBS television affiliate in Roanoke, Virginia, about Trump’s message to graduates.

“I’ve been working with his speech writers and I think he’s going to deliver a wonderful speech that will be personal to Liberty,” Falwell said in the interview.

Trump has expressed frustration that the Russia probe has loomed over his presidency. He insisted this week that he fired Comey over his performance, not because of the investigation, but the timing of the dismissal and his comments afterward have raised alarms with his critics.

Trump, who has been preparing for his first foreign trip to the Middle East and Europe late next week, also will deliver the commencement address to the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, on Wednesday.

“To young Americans at both schools, I will be bringing a message of hope and optimism about our nation’s bright future,” Trump said in his weekly address to the nation.

Trump will encourage students to “be a force for good in the world by standing up for the values that Liberty has taught them,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.

Liberty University said it expects more than 7,000 of its 18,000 graduates to participate in the ceremonies, most of whom earned their degree online. Past commencements have attracted as many as 40,000 people, the college said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Bill Trott)

Pastor Saeed shares stories about Iranian imprisonment at Liberty Convocation

The Christian pastor who spent 3-1/2 years behind bars in an Iranian prison recently spoke about the experience, sharing his insights into the power of faith in the face of persecution.

Saeed Abedini addressed Liberty University Convocation on Friday, and discussed the series of events that led to him receiving an eight-year prison sentence on charges related to his beliefs.

He spoke about growing up in a Muslim household in Iran, converting to Christianity as a 20-year-old and the numerous challenges he faced spreading the Gospel in his homeland.

“The first time they arrested me, they tried to put pressure on me to deny my faith. That was maybe 14, 13 years ago,” Abedini told those gathered at the university in Lynchburg, Virginia. “And then after torturing me psychologically and putting me into jail, they saw it doesn’t work. That’s the power of faith. You can see that Satan steps back when you stand firm in your faith.”

Abedini told the convocation he went through a cycle of “preaching, prison, preaching, prison” as authorities tried to stop his efforts to grow the church in a predominantly Islamic nation.

The struggle between Abedini, a naturalized United States citizen, and the Iranian government came to a head in 2012, when the pastor told the convocation that authorities accused him of trying to overthrow the government by converting Muslims to Christianity. The pastor was handed an eight-year prison sentence, but was freed in January as part of a prisoner exchange.

Abedini told the convocation that he was a witness of the power of prayer, and saw God at work in Iran. He added that having faith in Jesus Christ can bring light to even the darkest places.

“If you want to be realistic, there it’s very dark,” Abedini said during the convocation. “These people are very harsh. They really hate us. They really hate Christians. They really hate America, and they do everything that they can do to stop us. That’s the reality. But our Lord is above all these things. When you just come on your knees, you can see He is there.”

Abedini told the audience he shared Gospel with some of his fellow prisoners, “tens” of whom turned to Christ. He said the group of prisoners prayed and celebrated communion together, hiding the bread under blankets to conceal it from the prison’s security cameras.

“Some of them still are there,” Abedini said. “They need our (prayers).”

The pastor also shared a story about a prison guard torturing him in solitary confinement early in his prison sentence. He vowed to remain true to his Christian values and forgive the guard.

As Abedini was getting ready to leave the prison, he said he encountered that guard again. Abedini said he hugged the guard, told him he loved him and added he would pray for him.

“When we put ourselves in a situation to love people, God is going to open the door,” he said.