President Bush praised the way people of various faiths have shaped the character of the United States in a Friday message recognizing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“Islam is a peaceful religion, and people who practice the Islamic faith have made great contributions to our nation and the world,” the president said. “As Americans, we cherish our freedom to worship and we remain committed to welcoming individuals of all religions. By working together to advance freedom and mutual understanding, we are creating a brighter future of hope and opportunity.”

Ramadan, which began Sunday or Monday, depending on appearance of the new moon, is Islam’s holiest time of the year. Muslims believe Ramadan was the month when God began to reveal the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago. Observant Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, abstaining from food, drink and other sensual pleasures. Ramadan ends with communal prayers called “Eid ul-Fitr,” or “Feast of the Fast-Breaking,” on or about Nov. 25.

Interest in the Muslim holy month has risen since Sept. 11, 2001, as the U.S. war on terrorism focused on Islamic militants in the Middle East and Asia.

Its coming this year is being viewed as a double-edged sword. In some parts of the world, there is concern that religious fervor will heighten anger over the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Elsewhere, Muslims hope the month will bring reflection on the meaning of Islam and foster interfaith understanding.

“This year, Ramadan will not only be a time of spiritual reflection and renewal, but also a time to reach out to people of other faiths to educate them about Islam and the American Muslim community,” said Omar Ahmad, board chairman of Council on American-Islamic Relations, an Islamic civil rights and advocacy group based in Washington.

The observance got off to a rocky start in Iraq, where four suicide bombings Monday in Baghdad killed an estimated 30 people, including two American soldiers, and wounded 200 others.

“It looks like a coordinated terror campaign to coincide with the first day of the holy month of Ramadan to create a sense of panic and a sense of a complete lack of security,” said Samir Sumaidy of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, according to CNN.

President Bush condemned the attacks. “There are terrorists in Iraq who are willing to kill anybody in order to stop our progress,” he said.  “The vast majority of Iraqis want to live in a peaceful, free world. And we will find these people and we will bring them to justice.”

This year in Iraq, Sunni and Shiite clerics announced the beginning of Ramadan, a departure from the past, when Saddam Hussein would declare when to start the fast.

The U.S. military lifted its nighttime curfew in Baghdad to accommodate the city’s 5 million Muslims, and troops took sensitivity training about not being offensive to Muslims. American soldiers in Iraq won’t be eating, drinking or smoking in public during Ramadan as a precaution against inciting violence.

“We’re making sure our forces clearly understand what the traditions are, and what the sensitivities are, to make sure that we’re being respectful of the Iraqi people,” said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. and coalition troops, according to the Associated Press.

Embassies in Asia, meanwhile, were on alert over heightened anti-American sentiment.

“Muslims are living in a state of fear that they will become scapegoats,” Vitaya Visetrat, a leader of Thailand’s minority Muslim community, said in Bangkok, according to the Associated Press. “George Bush continues to cook up stories about terrorism that point a bad finger at Muslims.”

Ramadan is based on a lunar calendar, meaning it begins about 11 days earlier each year. This year’s observance began Sunday for most Muslims, but some in Asia began a day later in accordance with their region’s sighting of the new moon.

There are about 7 million Muslims living in the U.S., and the total worldwide Islamic population is estimated at 1.2 billion. Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in America and around the world.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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