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Tillerson declines to host Ramadan event at State Department, sources say

Exxon Mobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston on April 21, 2015. Courtesy of REUTERS/Daniel Kramer

Exxon Mobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston on April 21, 2015. Courtesy of REUTERS/Daniel Kramer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has declined a request to host an event to mark Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, two U.S. officials said, apparently breaking with a bipartisan tradition in place with few exceptions for nearly 20 years.

Since 1999, Republican and Democratic secretaries of state have nearly always hosted either an iftar dinner to break the day’s fast during Ramadan or a reception marking the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of the month, at the State Department.

Tillerson turned down a request from the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs to host an Eid al-Fitr reception as part of Ramadan celebrations, said two U.S. officials who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

According to an April 6 memo seen by Reuters, the office — which typically initiates such events – recommended that Tillerson hold an Eid al-Fitr reception.

His rejection of the request suggests there are no plans this year for any high-profile Ramadan function at the State Department. The month of fasting and prayer for Muslims gets under way in many countries on Saturday.

When asked by Reuters to comment on Tillerson declining a request to host an Eid al-Fitr event in July for Ramadan, a State Department spokesperson said:

“We are still exploring possible options for observance of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the month of Ramadan. U.S. ambassadors are encouraged to celebrate Ramadan through a variety of activities, which are held annually at missions around the world.”

Muslim activists have accused President Donald Trump’s administration of having an unfriendly attitude towards Islam, encapsulated by its attempts to ban citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

The administration says that while it strongly opposes Islamist militants, it has no quarrel with Islam. Aides point to Trump’s visit this month to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam where he addressed the leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries, as evidence of that.

Members of Congress, Muslim civil society and community leaders, diplomats from Muslim countries and senior U.S. officials usually attend the State Department Ramadan event, a symbol of the U.S. government’s diplomatic efforts with Muslim countries and people.

If Tillerson avoids hosting one this year, that could send a message “that it is not as important to this administration to engage with Muslims,” said former U.S. diplomat Farah Pandith, who served in the Bush and Obama administrations and helped plan Ramadan events at the White House and State Department.

Tillerson issued a statement on Friday to mark the start of Ramadan, which he called “a month of reverence, generosity, and self-reflection.”

“Most importantly, it is a cherished time for family and friends to gather and give charity to those who are less fortunate,” he said.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright started the tradition 18 years ago of America’s top diplomat hosting a public event for Ramadan, a lunar month.

The secretary of state of the time usually gives remarks there on the meaning of Ramadan.

In April, the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs made a request to Tillerson’s office that he deliver remarks at an Eid al-Fitr reception this year, and suggested a two-week range of dates in July. The event would serve to “highlight State Department initiatives and the importance of Muslim engagement,” the memo said.

It noted that by hosting a reception just after Ramadan, rather than an iftar – an often sumptuous dinner at sunset – a State Department event could be held any time of the day, thus preventing “a very late evening for the Secretary.”

Several weeks later, that office and other offices at the State Department were alerted that Tillerson declined the request, the officials said.

Reuters was told of the request being declined but did not see Tillerson’s reply. An official with the Office of Religion and Global Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

Several prominent Muslim-American groups in the Washington area who are normally invited to the Ramadan event told Reuters this week that they had yet to receive an invitation from the State Department, which they said was unusual.

“If they’re having one, we haven’t been invited,” said Rabiah Ahmed, spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington. A representative for her group has been invited to the State Department event in the past, she said.

Trump’s administration has had a fraught relationship with Muslims. As a presidential candidate, the Republican urged a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, called for more surveillance of mosques and warned that radical Muslims were “trying to take over our children.”

Trump has since toned down his rhetoric and courts have halted his temporary travel ban on people from six mostly Muslim countries.

White House officials did not respond to a request for comment on whether they would continue the tradition this year of hosting a Ramadan-related event at the White House.

The State Department celebrates other religious traditions though some of those commemorations are not as well-established as the State Department’s Ramadan event. In 2014, then-secretary of state John Kerry hosted the first ever celebration at the State Department marking Diwali, the Hindu festival.

The White House also traditionally hosts annual Christmas and Easter events as well as a Seder dinner to mark the Jewish Passover.

The top U.S. diplomat has personally hosted a Ramadan event every year since 1999, often in the State Department’s grand Benjamin Franklin room, apart from three years.

In 2006 and 2015, deputies of the secretary of state at the time hosted either an iftar dinner or an Eid al-Fitr reception. In 2014, Kerry hosted a reception for Eid al-Adha, another important Muslim holiday.

(Reuters)

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Yeganeh Torbati

14 Comments

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  • Since 1999.
    For 18 years the State Department has hosted a dinner, a single dinner over the course of a month, or a reception at the end of the month-long holiday. But this year — the year an administration is trying desperately to prove its 90 day “ban” isn’t about religion, it isn’t about bigotry — Mr. Tillerson can’t manage a reception. Yet we get a White House Easter egg hunt. Seders. Christmas parties.

    Can we hold a “People’s Iftar” — across from the White House or the State Department? Because if our government can’t be decent, the rest of us can.

  • I doubt the State Department allow Christmas parties … maybe holiday parties but not Christmas parties. …. and yes you are indecent.

  • Recognizing the key holidays of American Muslims is not appeasement. They do it for Christianity and Judaism. To fail to do so for Muslims would imply that we blame the entire religion for the actions of a small minority – an ignorant notion and a slap in the face to law-abiding American Muslims. Of course I do not know Tillerson’s reasons.

  • Certainly the White House turns into a virtual Christmas wonderland with the previous president hosting 20 receptions/parties over the Christmas season.

  • I guess it would be akin to Mike Pence giving a toast at a gay wedding.

    The administration already has made it clear it does not respect American Muslims as people. They are being surprisingly consistent.

  • Don’t forget the White House’s annual Christmas tree and lighting ceremony.

    It would be a violation of the First Ammendment if the government doesn’t acknowledge important holidays of other major religions.

  • When your budgetless and locked in a death embrace, in a slow genocide with the Grand Dragons of Wahhabi headchoppin, politically/financially sleeping with the mother of suicide bombing, emptying the public treasury writing contracts to friends and family, arming and training al-Qaida/Nusra, intentionally upheaving entire Regions, creating refugees, widows and orphans by the millions, in absolute satanic hypocrisy and betrayal of humanity and “fighting terrorism” …surely you can host a little roodypoot cult party, you bunch of Godless, Evil, antichrist, planet ravaging MFers…

  • Would have expected a little more cultural sensitivity though from someone who was CEO of Exxon. The company had/s the logo People for Respect, Inclusion and Diversity of Employees.

  • ” and in other world news, evangelical Christians all across the US are still protesting the Secretary of State’s refusal to hold an adult reception and children’s Easter egg hunt at the State Department!

  • Jim, the Christmas-tree tradition came to the US via Germany many years ago. Evergreens were used to celebrate a secular winter holiday. We Americans just added the lights! Christians may put angels up on top if they choose!

  • Jim, when did Muslims quit putting gays to death and start respecting THEM as people?

  • Pretty much when they move to democratic and free societies. Same as everyone else. People still do it in many parts here. Conservative Christians are far worse than American Muslims in that respect. They have the political power to enact discriminatory measures against gays and a long history of doing so. American Muslim’s don’t.

    I don’t hear of the plethora of anti gay hate crimes in Muslim communities in MI, CA, NY or NJ.

    Plus there is also the use of homosexual slavery/concubinage found in some islamicist cultures. But frankly, what people do in autocratic crapholes doesn’t mean much about a given culture or faith.

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