President Barack Obama welcomed His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Thursday during his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. While the Dalai Lama did not speak at the annual Washington event, his attendance had stirred controversy, with the Chinese government objecting to any foreign leader embracing a man it considers the leader of a separatist movement in Tibet.

“I want to offer a special welcome to a good friend,” Obama said early in his speech. He called the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhists “a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion.”

The Dalai Lama did not sit on stage but was seated next to one of the president’s top advisers, Valerie Jarrett, who was sent to India in 2009 to meet with the Dalai Lama after the White House canceled a meeting with him before Obama’s trip to Beijing. Obama and the Dalai Lama met the following year at the White House.

In his address at the event, Obama went on to condemn the Islamic State group, calling it a “death cult” that “carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism” including using “rape as a weapon of war.” He mentioned the ongoing civil war in Syria, the religious persecution of Christians and Muslims in Nigeria by Boko Haram, religious violence in the Central African Republic as well as growing anti-Semitism in Europe.

 “We have to speak up against those who would misuse [God’s] name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty,” Obama said. “No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.”

He made pointed references to prominent religious figures like Pope Francis, whom he praised for his “call to relieve suffering,” as well as lesser-known ones including Saeed Abedini, an American pastor who has been jailed in Iran since 2012. Abedini’s plight was highlighted in recent weeks when Obama visited Abedini’s wife and children in Boise, Idaho. In his speech on Thursday, Obama quoted the letter he received from Abedini following his visit.

 “We’re going to keep up this work -- for Pastor Abedini and all those around the world who are unjustly held or persecuted because of their faith,” Obama said.

The National Prayer Breakfast is an annual interfaith, but largely Christian, event. This year about 3,300 evangelical and other faith leaders attended the meeting at the Washington Hilton. Former NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip delivered the keynote address where he explained how he became a devout Christian following a near fatal car crash in 1993.

“There aren’t many occasions that bring His Holiness under the same roof as NASCAR,” Obama said, referring to the Dalai Lama. “This may be the first. But God works in mysterious ways.”