Tillerson declines to host Ramadan reception

WASHINGTON — In an apparent break with a nearly two-decades long bipartisan tradition, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has declined to host an event commemorating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, according to two administration officials familiar with the decision.

The officials said Tillerson rejected a request by the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs to host a reception marking the Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which begins Saturday in many countries.

Reuters first reported that Tillerson declined to host an event for Ramadan.

Since 1999, Tillerson’s five Republican and Democratic predecessors have hosted either an Iftar dinner to break the fast during Ramadan, or an Eid al-Fitr reception at the end of the month-long holiday. Many diplomatic posts overseas also host events during Ramadan’s month of fasting and prayer.

The White House and State Department commemorate other religious traditions, including a Jewish Passover Seder, as well as Christmas and Easter holidays. But the Ramadan event, usually attended by members of Congress, diplomats from Muslim countries, Muslim community leaders and top US officials has become a symbol of US efforts to engage with the Muslim world.

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

It is unclear whether Tillerson’s decision not to plan an event — which is usually put on the calendar weeks, if not months, in advance — was related to his ongoing streamlining of the agency, which includes massive budget cuts and shedding as many of 2,000 jobs. Offices like the one dealing with religious outreach are widely expected to be scrapped as part of the restructuring, although no final decisions have been made.

On Friday, Tillerson issued a statement marking the start of Ramadan, calling the holiday “”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. This time reminds us all of the common values of harmony and empathy we hold dear,” he added.

The statement starkly contrasted with one issued by President Donald Trump. While wishing Muslims a joyful Ramadan, the President referenced this week’s terrorist attack in Manchester, England, calling the bombing at a concert “directly contrary to the spirit” of the holiday.

“At its core, the spirit of Ramadan strengthens awareness of our shared obligation to reject violence, to pursue peace, and to give to those in need who are suffering from poverty or conflict,” Trump’s statement said.

Addressing the terrorist attack that largely targeted children at an Ariana Grande concert, he added that “such acts only steel our resolve to defeat the terrorists and their perverted ideology.”

The decision to invoke the act of terrorism that took 22 lives and injured dozens more in a routine holiday statement was a break from the Obama administration, which did not mention terrorism in its annual statements on the Muslim holiday.

Muslim groups and advocates have criticized Trump as being anti-Islam, citing his rhetoric on the campaign trail and his call for additional surveillance of mosques. As President, he has attempted to ban citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States.

But this past week in Saudi Arabia, the President tried to make clear the US does not stand against Islam, drawing a distinction between the religion as a whole and its violent, extremist adherents. In a meeting with more than 50 Muslim leaders, Trump portrayed the battle against terrorist groups as a “battle between good and evil,” and urged Muslim-majority countries to redouble their own counter-terrorism efforts.