By BEN FELLER
The Associated Press
Wednesday, June 27, 2007; 7:55 PM
WASHINGTON -- President Bush announced Wednesday he will establish an envoy to a coalition of Muslim countries, with hopes of bolstering ties to the Islamic world and improving the image of the United States.
Bush's special envoy, who has not yet been named, will be a liaison to The Organization of the Islamic Conference. The intergovernmental organization, representing more than 50 Islamic states, promotes Muslim solidarity in social and political affairs.
"Our special envoy will listen to and learn from representatives from Muslim states, and will share with them America's views and values," Bush said in a ceremony honoring the 50th anniversary of the Islamic Center, a mosque and cultural center in Washington.
"This is an opportunity for Americans to demonstrate to Muslim communities our interest in respectful dialogue and continued friendship," Bush said.
The United States has never before had a diplomat dedicated to dealing with The Organization of the Islamic Conference, or OIC. The establishment of a U.S. envoy comes as the plodding war in Iraq has fanned anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world.
The OIC was created in 1969 in response to an arson attack on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. It now has 57 members and is the second-largest international organization in the world, after the United Nations.
"This is an organization that a lot of people in the region look to, and we thought it was the right time to appoint somebody," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. Previously, according to the State Department, U.S. relations with the organization have been handled mainly by the U.S. ambassador to the country holding the OIC's rotating presidency, which is currently Turkey.
Those attending Wednesday's ceremony, including Bush, took off their shoes as they entered. Bush listened as a verse from the Quran was read.
"We live in a time when there are questions about America and her intentions. For those who seek a true understanding of our country, they need to look no farther than here," Bush said.
"This Muslim center sits quietly down the road from a synagogue, a Lutheran church, a Catholic parish, a Greek Orthodox chapel, a Buddhist temple _ each with faithful followers who practice their deeply held beliefs and live side by side in peace," he said.
Bush singled out Iran and Syria and accused them of religious and political repression.
"Millions seek a path to the future where they can say what they think, travel where they wish and worship as they choose," he said. "They plead in silence for their liberty and they hope someone, somewhere will answer.
"So today in this place of free worship, in a heart of a free nation, we say to those who yearn for freedom from Damascus to Tehran: you are not bound forever by your misery. Plead in silence no longer. The free world hears you. You're not alone. America offers you its hand in friendship. We work for the day when we can welcome you into the family of free nations."
Abdullah Khouj, president of the Islamic Center of Washington, noted it was Bush's third visit. The president's first visit was after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when he denounced prejudice against Muslims in the United States. He also visited in December 2002.
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.