Washington, Feb. 6--President Bush and other top political leaders gathered Thursday for the annual National Prayer Breakfast, speaking openly about their faith in the midst of the nation's difficult times. "I believe in prayer," the president told about 3,000 people in the Washington Hilton ballroom. "I pray. I pray for strength. I pray for guidance. I pray for forgiveness."

Some of Bush's key advisers, including keynote speaker and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, the director of the CIA and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quoted Scripture and recited prayers. The words of faith were interspersed with remembrances of lost astronauts, terrorism and members of the military faced with the possibility of war.

Bush and many other speakers recalled the loss of the "seven brave souls" who perished Saturday when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth. He said he felt "the presence of the Almighty" when he gathered with the grieving families who attended a Houston memorial service Tuesday for their loved ones. "I attribute it to the fact that they, themselves, are in prayer," the president said. "And our country prays for their strength."

Bush reiterated his confidence in the endurance of the American people in the midst of "a testing time for our country." He referred to troops gathering in the Middle East, "oppressive regimes that seek terrible weapons" and the continuing threat of terrorism. "One thing is for certain: We didn't ask for these challenges, but we will meet them," he said.

The thousands of attendees included dignitaries from more than 150 countries, who dined on sliced fruit and breakfast pastries before hearing speeches, joining in hymns and listening to worship music from contemporary Christian musician Michael W. Smith.

In her remarks, Rice continued on similar themes to the president's, mourning the loss of the astronauts and talking about the comfort of faith in "the darkest hours."

The daughter and granddaughter of Presbyterian ministers said she once had trouble understanding how American slaves could sing, "Nobody knows the trouble I see, glory hallelujah." "Growing up, I thought that was an incredible contradiction," she said. Now she understands: "It is true for humankind that nothing of lasting value has ever been achieved without sacrifice."

Quoting Christian, Jewish and Muslim scriptures, Rice said Americans have pressed forward after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 to help others have a better future and continue to be a tolerant nation accepting those of all faiths and no faith. She urged a renewed commitment to fight hunger and disease worldwide and to foster freedom. "Now, as our nation once again deals with great loss, with fears and with uncertainties, let us recommit ourselves to those values which define us," she said. "If terror and tragedy spur us to rediscover these commitments, we can truly sing, `No one knows the trouble I've seen, glory hallelujah."'

Rice recalled how she agreed to serve as a pianist at a Baptist church when she was working at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. She sought her mother's advice for dealing with the unfamiliar, impromptu aspects of the service. "If you play in C, the foundational key in music, people will come back to you," she said. "Perhaps God plays in C and that is why we always seem to find our way back to him, sometimes in spite of ourselves."

Congressional leaders from Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi took turns at the podium. Pelosi prayed that God would "make us your instrument of healing, reconciliation and peace." Hastert, drawing on lessons from the Gospel of Luke, said faith is the foundation for challenges faced by a fragile world. "All we have is our faith that God is with us, our faith in Jesus Christ that we do the right things," he said. "We can only do the right things if we have unlimited faith in him."

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