When I told a friend that I would be volunteering at the Secretary of State’s annual Iftar this summer, she asked me whether “iftar” was yet another State Department acronym. I laughed, explaining that the Iftar is the evening meal with which Muslims break their fast during the month of Ramadan. For a wide-eyed intern like me, I told her, the Secretary’s Iftar would be a highlight of the summer. As it turns out, I was right!
When the day of the Iftar arrived, I had the chance to sit down with a few of the guests for an informal afternoon meeting. It was amazing to meet these accomplished, inspiring people in person and hear about the work they are doing in their communities. The guests lauded the U.S. government for its efforts to foster appreciation for diversity abroad through exchange programs and other forms of public diplomacy, and expressed their enthusiasm about receiving invitations to dine with the Secretary. Before I knew it, sundown approached and the guests were beginning to fill the top floor of the Department. It was time for the volunteers to man our stations and help escort visitors and members of the press between the various Diplomatic Reception rooms. Many guests ventured out onto the porch to watch the sun set over the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
Once many of the Muslim guests had prayed and broken the fast with dried fruits and nuts, the visitors entered the Benjamin Franklin room and settled at their tables, turning their attention to the podium. First, Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith addressed the crowd, thanking the guests for the important work they have done to strengthen bonds between religious communities around the world.
At last, Secretary Kerry approached the microphone. Recalling John Winthrop, a distant relation of his who sought refuge in America in light of the persecution of Puritans in 17th century England, the Secretary spoke about the importance of religious freedom in American history.
“We didn’t always get it right,” he said, referencing several instances of religious persecution perpetrated by Americans. “Throughout our history, we have struggled with the divisiveness of religious differences.”
Today, the Secretary said, the promotion of tolerance and religious freedom around the world is a top priority for the U.S. government and there has never been a more important time to actively cultivate compassion between people of different faiths.
Finishing his remarks to enthusiastic applause, Secretary Kerry joined his table, and dinner began. All too soon, however, the plates were cleared, the guests departed, and the volunteers were free to go. As I left the building, my legs felt tired, but my mind was spinning. Not only had I been impressed with the individual accomplishments of the guests and the grandeur of the Iftar itself, but I had also been struck by the guiding principle that these people of different faiths seemed to have in common: the desire for peace.
It was a night I won’t forget.