Bush Hosts Ramadan Meal

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Reaching out to the world's Muslims, President Bush hosted a Ramadan break-the-fast dinner Monday at the White House.

"I appreciate your support" for the war against terrorism, the president said in brief remarks in the State Dining Room before representatives of 53 Muslim nations.

"Tonight that campaign continues in Afghanistan so that the people of Afghanistan will soon know peace," said Bush. "The terrorists have no home in any faith. Evil has no holy days."

The administration's message is a counterpoint to claims made by suspected terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden, who accuses the United States of waging a war against Islam.

Several senior officials in the administration attended the event, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Also in attendance were ambassadors and diplomats from throughout the Muslim world, including Rostom Al-Zoubi, the Syrian ambassador, and Hasan Abdel Rahman, chief representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Libya, Iran and Iraq did not send representatives.

Bush said the United States was proud to be playing a leading role in a humanitarian effort to feed the Afghan people at the same time American warplanes bomb the Taliban.

"My administration is committed to help reconstruct that country and to support a stable government that represents all the people of Afghanistan," he said.

Bush bowed his head but did not close his eyes during a prayer offered by Imam Abdullah Muhammad Khouj, who asked Allah to "make us true believers."

Though Bush declined to halt bombing during Ramadan, which began last week, he is emphasizing his administration's humanitarian efforts in the region. Those efforts were the public focus of a Cabinet meeting Monday.

"This good nation is doing everything we can to move enormous amounts of food into the areas where people are likely to starve," Bush said after the session.

On the lawn of the White House, the administration showcased piles of flour, wheat, cornmeal, blankets and coats like those the United States is sending Afghanistan.

"The White House is setting a table, not only for ourselves domestically, but for other nations, for the people of Afghanistan, for the starving and the hungry of Afghanistan," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Bombing in Afghanistan has slowed in recent days, largely because of a scarcity of targets. Asked whether the White House "iftar" -- the evening meal that breaks the fast -- was meant to stem criticism of the continued attacks, Fleischer said: "I think most American Muslims want to defend this country, too. It's their country as well."

During Ramadan, believers abstain from all food, drink, smoking and other pleasures during daylight. Special dishes are served after prayers in the evening.

For much of Bush's first year in office, relations were poor between him and Muslims, who were offended when they could not secure a meeting with him. Tensions rose in June when Vice President Dick Cheney canceled an appearance with them.

Later that month, a group of Muslim leaders walked out of a White House meeting, angered when a Secret Service officer ordered one of them out of the building. The Secret Service and a White House official later apologized.

Since he began a military, financial and political campaign against terrorists, Bush has gone out of his way to make clear that the effort is not directed at Islam, and to seek the support of Muslims at home and abroad.

But he rejected suggestions that Monday's event was purely symbolic.

"No, it's real," he said after issuing the annual Thanksgiving pardon for a turkey named Liberty. "We are a nation of many faiths."

Bush is apparently the first president to host iftar.

In 1998 and 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addressed State Department meals marking iftar.

In 1999, President Clinton addressed Muslims with a videotaped message in honor of Eid al-Fitr, a three-day feast celebrating the end of Ramadan. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton led White House celebrations of that holiday several years in a row. Last year, President Clinton met with Muslim leaders to mark Ramadan.