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Obama hosts Iftar dinner to mark Ramadan — and reach out to Muslims

Speaking at an Iftar dinner hosted at the White House June 22, President Obama spoke of the deaths of three Muslim Americans in Chapel Hill, N.C., and emphasized the country’s unity regardless of religious variations. (Video: Reuters)

President Obama hosted an Iftar dinner Monday night to mark the Muslim holiday of Ramadan and to reach out to the roughly 1.5 billion Muslims around the world when much of the Islamic world is struggling with war, terrorism and economic challenges and when the United States remains embroiled in many of those conflicts.

The president said that the holiday dinner "is also a reminder of the freedoms that bind us together as Americans, including the freedom of religion -- that inviolable right to practice our faiths freely."

Citing the shootings at the Charleston, S.C., church and the murder of three young Muslim Americans in Chapel Hill, N.C., earlier this year, Obama said that "as Americans, we insist that nobody should be targeted because of who they are, or what they look like, who they love, how they worship." He said "our prayers remain in Charleston."

The Iftar dinner, which continues a tradition started by President Clinton and continued by President George W. Bush, featured nearly the entire diplomatic corps representing the Islamic world as well as a few young Muslim Americans Obama held up as examples of what can be achieved in the United States. There were about 150 guests, including some members of Congress.

The Ramadan holiday, which began last week and lasts a month, marks the time when Muslims believe the Koran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. "It’s a time of spiritual renewal and a reminder of one’s duty to our fellow man -- to serve one another and lift up the less fortunate," Obama said.

During Ramadan, Muslims fast during daylight hours and since June 21 is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere the White House meal was served promptly. Because of the lunar calendar, Ramadan falls at different times of the year.

Despite Obama's message of peace, the Middle East remains torn by conflict from the Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq to Saudi Arabia's air attacks on factions fighting for control of Yemen to the recent Taliban attack on Afghanistan's parliament building.

Obama linked tolerance within the United States to American goals abroad. "These are the freedoms and the ideals, and the values that we uphold," he said. "And it’s more important than ever, because around the world and here at home, there are those who seek to divide us by religion or race or sect."

The president held up several Muslim Americans as models.

Ziad Ahmed, 16, a Bangladeshi-American growing up in New Jersey, two years ago founded Redefy, a Web site to combat harmful stereotypes by encouraging teens like him to share their stories.

Munira Khalif, the daughter of Somali immigrants, started an organization to support girls’ education in East Africa.  Though she just graduated from high school in Minnesota, Obama noted, she’s already lobbied Congress to pass the Girls Count Act so that girls in the developing world are documented at birth. Obama signed the bill into law last week. She was accepted to all eight Ivy League colleges and will attend Harvard.

Batoul Abuharb, born in a refugee camp in Gaza, grew up in Houston and graduated from Rice University. After spending a summer in Gaza working with a United Nations health clinic, she started Dunia Health to improve the distribution of vaccines. The United Nations is now planning to expand Dunia’s work to more countries across the Middle East, Obama said.

The president also mentioned Samantha Elauf, who went to the Supreme Court to defend the right to wear a hijab without sacrificing job opportunities at Abercrombie & Fitch. And she won, Obama noted.