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Muslim Holy Month Begins This Weekend

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2004 – Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide, begins this weekend.

The observance, with its emphasis on inner reflection, fasting and prayer, takes on special significance to U.S. servicemembers deployed to Southwest Asia, as well as an estimated 7,000 Muslims in the U.S. armed forces.

During Ramadan, Muslims eat a small meal each morning before dawn and then abstain from food, drinks, cigarettes and other physical pleasures until just after sunset. Evenings are marked by Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast, and often prayer in the local mosque.

The exact start and end dates for Ramadan vary, based on Islamic lunar calendar and the sighting of the new moon. This year, Ramadan is expected to begin about Oct. 15, Louay M. Safi, executive director of the Islamic Society of North America Leadership Development Center, estimated in a letter to Army Chaplain (Col.) Richard K. Hum, executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board.

The observation will continue for 29 or 30 days, depending on the lunar calendar, Safi said.

Military commanders and chaplains in Southwest Asia are urging their servicemembers to be sensitive to the significance of Ramadan, while gearing up for the possibility of increased violence against them during the observance. Last year, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, then commander of coalition forces in Iraq, said attacks on civilians and Iraqi security forces more than doubled during Ramadan. Sanchez noted that in the 32 days since the start of Ramadan, the enemy conducted 74 attacks against civilian or Iraqi government officials and 84 attacks against Iraqi security forces.

This year, coalition leaders are hopeful for peace, but "planning for and expecting the possibility of increased attacks," Air Force Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, deputy operations director for Multinational Force Iraq, said during an interview with the Pentagon Channel last week from Baghdad. Lessel said coalition forces have increased their security level in preparation for the start of Ramadan. "We are hoping that we do not see an increase in the level of attacks," he said. "But we will be ready if necessary."

Army Cpl. Michael Quintana, a 1st Cavalry Division chaplain's assistant in Iraq, about to experience Ramadan in Iraq for the third consecutive year, said he considers understanding the local culture, including Islam, an integral part of showing respect for the Iraqi people.

"It's a respect thing as a soldier," Quintana told a reporter for the 122nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. "For example, if somebody doesn't celebrate Christmas, it's still important to respect somebody who does. It's the same thing."

In Afghanistan, Army Capt. Tom Yates, chaplain for Task Force Victory, advised servicemembers to use sensitivity in dealing with Afghans during patrols in local cities or when interacting with local workers and residents. This, he told a reporter for the 17th Public Affairs Detachment, includes not eating or drinking in front of Muslims who are fasting. "Don't stop in the city square and have lunch," he said.

Yates stressed the importance of showing respect for those observing Ramadan. "We're carrying on operations in an intensely religious nation," he said. Remaining culturally sensitive, he said, "is important because it demonstrates the inclusiveness of the human family, and it acknowledges that we have all the individual personal religious preferences which we need to respect."

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Related Articles:
Servicemembers Remain Sensitive to Muslim Holiday
Ramadan: A Time for Sensitivity in Iraq

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