Exclusive: Tillerson declines to host Ramadan event at State Department

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has declined a request to host an event to mark Islam's holy month of Ramadan, two U.S. officials said, apparently breaking with a bipartisan tradition in place with few exceptions for nearly 20 years.

Since 1999, Republican and Democratic secretaries of state have nearly always hosted either an iftar dinner to break the day's fast during Ramadan or a reception marking the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of the month, at the State Department.

Tillerson turned down a request from the State Department's Office of Religion and Global Affairs to host an Eid al-Fitr reception as part of Ramadan celebrations, said two U.S. officials who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

22 PHOTOS
Honoring Ramadan at the White House over the years
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Honoring Ramadan at the White House over the years
U.S. President George W. Bush (R) bows his head during a prayer with Kuwait's Prime Minister Sheikh Nasir Muhammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah at the Iftaar Dinner at the White House, September 17, 2008 in Washington. Iftaar marks the meal served at the end of the day during Ramadan to break the day's fast. REUTERS/Mike Theiler (UNITED STATES)
U.S. President Barack Obama greets Samantha Elauf while hosting the Iftar dinner in observance of Ramadan at the White House in Washington June 22, 2015. Elauf won a recent Supreme Court discrimination case after being denied a job for wearing a religious headscarf. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES - JANUARY 29: First Lady Hillary Clinton meets with Muslim Americans in the White House Indian Treaty Room on January 29, 1998 to commemorate the end of Ramadan. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks while hosting an Iftar dinner at the White House in Washington July 14, 2014. Iftar is the meal after sunset that breaks the day of fasting during Ramadan. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION)
383613 01: President Clinton celebrates Ramadan with local Muslim leaders December 21, 2000 in Washington, DC. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar set aside for fasting and worship. (Photo Courtesy of the White House/Newsmakers)
National Security adviser Susan Rice (R) talks to a guest at an Iftar dinner celebrating Ramadan at the White House in Washington July 25, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION)
U.S. President George W. Bush makes remarks at the Iftaar Dinner at the White House in Washington September 17, 2008. Iftaar marks the meal served at the end of the day during Ramadan to break the day's fast. REUTERS/Mike Theiler (UNITED STATES)
U.S. President Barack Obama is pictured in a TV camera's viewfinder as he delivers remarks during the Iftar dinner in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington August 13, 2010. The Iftar dinner celebrates the evening breaking of fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: RELIGION POLITICS)
U.S. President George W. Bush (C) is seated with Kuwait's Prime Minister Sheikh Nasir Muhammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah (L) and other unidentified guests at the Iftaar Dinner at the White House in Washington September 17, 2008. Iftaar marks the meal served at the end of the day during Ramadan to break the day's fast. REUTERS/Mike Theiler (UNITED STATES)
U.S. President Barack Obama introduces college basketball star Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir during a dinner celebrating Ramadan in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, September 1, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES POLITICS RELIGION)
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addresses the African Growth and Opportunity Association business roundtable on sub-Sahara growth at the State Department in Washington November 7, 2002. Powell will later attend a dinner celebrating the start of Ramadan at the White House. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid BM
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at an iftar dinner, the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan, at the White House in Washington August 10, 2012. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION)
398753 02: U.S. President George W. Bush listens to 3-year-old Alexandria Hudome before reading from a book of poems to a group of Muslim children during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr December 17, 2001 in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, DC. Eid a-Fitr, which marks the end of Islams holy month of Ramadan, is celebrated with the breaking of a month long fast, prayers, and visits to relatives and friends. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. President George W. Bush addresses a group of Muslims at an Iftar dinner during the Holy month of Ramadan in the State Dining Room of the White House, November 10, 2004. REITERS/Mannie Garcia MG/HK
US President Barack Obama greets attendees after speaking at an Eid al-Fitr reception in the East Room of the White House on July 21, 2016. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A view of a menu for an Iftar dinner in the State Dining Room of the White House is seen on August 10, 2012 in Washington. US President Barack Obama hosted guests for Iftar where Mulslims break their fast during the month of Ramadan. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 22: Senior advisor Valerie Jarrett attends attends the annual Iftar dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House July 22, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 22: U.S. President Barack Obama hosts the annual Iftar dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in the East Room of the White House July 22, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
Huma Abedin (R), aide to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and others listen while US President Barack Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House on August 10, 2012 in Washington during Iftar, the fast-breaking meal of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages)
U.S. President Barack Obama greets guests at an Iftar dinner celebrating Ramadan in the State Dining Room of the White House August 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. The invited guests include elected officials, religious and grassroots leaders in the Muslim American community, and leaders of diverse faiths and members of the diplomatic corps .Photo by Olivier Douliery/ABACAUSA.com (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Pool/ABACAUSA.COM/Corbis via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 4: President George W. Bush (R) shakes hands with Navy Imam Chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Abuhena M. Saifulislam, who gave the prayer at the Iftaar Dinner in the State Dining Room of the White House October 4, 2007 in Washington, DC. During the traditional meal that breaks the daily fast during Ramadan, President Bush said that the U.S. has a proud history of standing with Muslims. (Photo by Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)
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According to an April 6 memo seen by Reuters, the office - which typically initiates such events - recommended that Tillerson hold an Eid al-Fitr reception.

His rejection of the request suggests there are no plans this year for any high-profile Ramadan function at the State Department. The month of fasting and prayer for Muslims gets under way in many countries on Saturday.

When asked by Reuters to comment on Tillerson declining a request to host an Eid al-Fitr event in July for Ramadan, a State Department spokesperson said:

"We are still exploring possible options for observance of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the month of Ramadan. U.S. ambassadors are encouraged to celebrate Ramadan through a variety of activities, which are held annually at missions around the world."

Muslim activists have accused President Donald Trump's administration of having an unfriendly attitude toward Islam, encapsulated by its attempts to ban citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

The administration says that while it strongly opposes Islamist militants, it has no quarrel with Islam. Aides point to Trump's visit this month to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam where he addressed the leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries, as evidence of that.

13 PHOTOS
Rex Tillerson through his career
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Rex Tillerson through his career

Exxon Mobil Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Rex Tillerson speaks at a news conference following the Exxon Mobil annual shareholders meeting in Dallas, Texas May 30, 2007. Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday that the construction of the Mackenzie pipeline project in Canada was not viable at current cost levels.

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson look on at a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi August 30, 2011. Exxon and Russia's Rosneft signed a deal on Tuesday to develop oil and gas reserves in the Russian Arctic, opening up one of the last unconquered drilling frontiers to the global industry No.1.

(REUTERS/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool)

Executives from six major oil companies are sworn in to testify at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the "Consolidation in the Oil and Gas Industry: Raising Prices?" on Capitol Hill in Washington March 14, 2006. The executives are (L-R) Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil Corp., James Mulva, Chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips, David O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp., Bill Klesse, CEO of Valero Energy Corp., John Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil Company and Ross Pillari, President and CEO of BP America Inc.

(Jason Reed / Reuters)

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

Chairman, President and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex Tillerson watches a tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club course in Pebble Beach, California, February 6, 2014.

(REUTERS/Michael Fiala)

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil; John Watson, chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp.; James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Co.; and Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America Inc.; are sworn in during the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing on their safety practices as oil continues to leak into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig - operated by BP - exploded last month.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

WASHINGTON, DC - May 12: James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; and Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp.; during the Senate Finance hearing on oil and gas tax incentives.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex W. Tillerson and Norway Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg attends the United Nations Foundation's global leadership dinner at The Pierre Hotel on November 8, 2011 in New York City.

(Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson, chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., left, speaks with Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates Inc., during the 2015 IHS CERAWeek conference in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. CERAWeek 2015, in its 34th year, will provide new insights and critically-important dialogue with decision-makers in the oil and gas, electric power, coal, renewables, and nuclear sectors from around the world.

(Photographer: F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Renda St. Clair and Rex Tillerson attend the reopening celebration at Ford's Theatre on February 11, 2009 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Abby Brack/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, listens during a meeting at the Department of the Interior September 22, 2010 in Washington, DC. Secretary of the Interior Kenneth L. Salazar hosted Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Gulf Oil Spill National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen (Ret.), representatives from the private sector and others to discus strengthening the containment abilities to deep water oil and gas well blowouts like the recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

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Members of Congress, Muslim civil society and community leaders, diplomats from Muslim countries and senior U.S. officials usually attend the State Department Ramadan event, a symbol of the U.S. government's diplomatic efforts with Muslim countries and people.

If Tillerson avoids hosting one this year, that could send a message "that it is not as important to this administration to engage with Muslims," said former U.S. diplomat Farah Pandith, who served in the Bush and Obama administrations and helped plan Ramadan events at the White House and State Department.

Tillerson issued a statement on Friday to mark the start of Ramadan, which he called "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," he said.

PAST RAMADANS

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright started the tradition 18 years ago of America's top diplomat hosting a public event for Ramadan, a lunar month.

The secretary of state of the time usually gives remarks there on the meaning of Ramadan.

In April, the State Department's Office of Religion and Global Affairs made a request to Tillerson's office that he deliver remarks at an Eid al-Fitr reception this year, and suggested a two-week range of dates in July. The event would serve to "highlight State Department initiatives and the importance of Muslim engagement," the memo said.

It noted that by hosting a reception just after Ramadan, rather than an iftar - an often sumptuous dinner at sunset - a State Department event could be held any time of the day, thus preventing "a very late evening for the Secretary."

Several weeks later, that office and other offices at the State Department were alerted that Tillerson declined the request, the officials said.

Reuters was told of the request being declined but did not see Tillerson's reply. An official with the Office of Religion and Global Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

Several prominent Muslim-American groups in the Washington area who are normally invited to the Ramadan event told Reuters this week that they had yet to receive an invitation from the State Department, which they said was unusual.

A representative for her group has been invited to the State Department event in the past, she said.

FRAUGHT RELATIONSHIP

Trump's administration has had a fraught relationship with Muslims. As a presidential candidate, the Republican urged a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, called for more surveillance of mosques and warned that radical Muslims were "trying to take over our children."

Trump has since toned down his rhetoric and courts have halted his temporary travel ban on people from six mostly Muslim countries.

White House officials did not respond to a request for comment on whether they would continue the tradition this year of hosting a Ramadan-related event at the White House.

The State Department celebrates other religious traditions though some of those commemorations are not as well-established as the State Department's Ramadan event. In 2014, then-secretary of state John Kerry hosted the first ever celebration at the State Department marking Diwali, the Hindu festival.

The White House also traditionally hosts annual Christmas and Easter events as well as a Seder dinner to mark the Jewish Passover.

The top U.S. diplomat has personally hosted a Ramadan event every year since 1999, often in the State Department's grand Benjamin Franklin room, apart from three years.

In 2006 and 2015, deputies of the secretary of state at the time hosted either an iftar dinner or an Eid al-Fitr reception. In 2014, Kerry hosted a reception for Eid al-Adha, another important Muslim holiday.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Alistair Bell)

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