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Pentagon observes Muslim holy month

General NewsOctober 3, 2007

By Sara A. Carter - Navy imam Chaplain Abuhena M. Saifulislam lifted his voice to God as he called to prayer more than 100 Department of Defense employees Monday at a celebration of Ramadan at the Pentagon.

“God is most great,” sang the lieutenant commander and Islamic leader, in Arabic, as iftar — the end of the daily fast began.
Uniformed military personnel, civilians and family members faced Mecca and knelt on adorned prayer rugs chanting their prayers in quiet invocation to Allah.

“We do all we can to help meet the religious needs of our soldiers,” said Deputy Pentagon Chaplain Army Maj. Alan Pomaville, a Christian, who attended the iftar alongside the Muslim chaplains. “The leadership in the [Defense Department] wants to care for the body of the whole soldier.”

As the Pentagon celebrated Ramadan, the White House is in preparations for an iftar feast tomorrow, said Lt. Cmdr. Saifulislam, who will be participating at the White House events.

“President and Mrs. Bush host an iftar dinner every year because they want people around the world to know how much they respect Islam and the many Muslims living in the U.S. who are free to worship as they want, and are an integral part of our society," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

With the Pew Hispanic Center estimating the U.S. Muslim population in 2007 at 2.35 million people and growing, it's no surprise to see the Muslim population play an important role in all facets of government, said Defense Department officials.

Defense officials could not readily provide current estimates on the number of Muslim service members, but said the department works diligently to provide spiritual counseling and guidance to service members of all faiths.

"We live in a great nation," said master of ceremonies Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy Oldenburg, a Muslim. "Yes, it is our First Amendment right do that — to practice our religion the way we feel, to worship God and to come to the Pentagon and celebrate Ramadan."

Ramadan, which is practiced by the world's more than 1 billion Muslims, began on Sept. 13 and concludes on the Eid al-Fitr, a special break-the-fast meal, on Oct. 12.

The Navy's chief of chaplains, Rear Adm. Robert F. Burt, reminded those attending the ceremony that American men and women, regardless of their religious background, should be honored because all "are willing to put their uniform on and lay down their life for this country."

Cmdr. Saifulislam said he has presided over funerals of young Muslim service members who have given their lives in the fight against terrorism.

For the Pentagon, as with the rest of the country, the process of mending fences since the September 11 attacks has not always been easy but necessary, he added.

"I think there is a misconception at times," said Cmdr. Saifulislam. "I have attended many funerals of American Muslims who have died in Iraq. If you take the time to get to know somebody, your attitude toward them changes."

The first Muslim U.S. congressman — Rep. Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat — also attended the iftar, along with Imam Sheik Rashid Lamptey, executive director of the Muslim Association of Virginia. Sheik Lamptey also served as the deputy imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Virginia.

As the night's festivities concluded, Col. Oldenburg presented Sheik Lamptey with an American flag that flew over the Pentagon on Sept. 7.

"It is not a choice for us to know each other," said Cmdr. Saifulislam regarding the diversity in the U.S. and military. "It is a necessity for us to know each other."

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