WASHINGTON--President Clinton, in a first-time event Monday (Jan.10), marked the festival celebrating the end of the Muslim holy month ofRamadan by greeting Muslim leaders and seeking their prayers for theMiddle East peace process.

"This will be a time of great tension where all people will have tosearch for wisdom and understanding, where there will be greatreluctance to open the closed fist and walk out into a new era," hesaid. "And I think that the prayers of Muslims, Jews, Christians andpeople of goodwill all over the world will be needed for us to getthrough these next several weeks."

The president, who spoke for about 15 minutes, addressed about 110people--Muslim leaders and their family members--at the Dwight D.Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House. Forthe last three years, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has held asimilar event to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the three-day festival thatfollows the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. Thisyear's event marked the first time the gathering was hosted by thepresident.

Fresh from peace talks between Syrian and Israeli leaders, Clintonsaid he was touched by the effect of the holy month on the discussions.

"It has been a great blessing for me in being involved in thesetalks these last few days to see the impact of the month of Ramadan andthe Eid on the believers in the Syrian delegation who were here," thepresident said. "It was quite a moving thing, and I hope that yourprayers will stay with them."

Clinton remarked on the growing visibility of U.S. Muslims, whojust completed a month of abstaining from food, drink, sex and other sensual pleasures from sunup to sundown. The president said there are now 6million Muslims in the country and 1,200 mosques and Islamic centers.

"Today Muslim-Americans are a cornerstone of our Americancommunity," he said. "They enrich our political and cultural life; theyprovide leadership in every field of human endeavor from business tomedicine to scholarship."

He urged those in attendance to work with other Americans to buildtolerance and understanding.

"There are still too many Americans who know too little aboutIslam," he said. "Too often stereotypes fill the vacuum ignorancecreates. That kind of bigotry is wrong. It has no place in Americansociety. There is no place for intolerance against people of any faith--against Muslims or Jews or Christians or Buddhists or Baha'is or anyother religious group or ethnic or racial group."

Muslim leaders in the audience praised the president for his remarksand for the symbolism of his presence to mark the special time on theMuslim calendar.

"It sends a very strong message to all of us who believe inreligious tolerance and inclusiveness, and I think it affirms what theConstitution actually stands for," said Chaplain Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad,an Army captain stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center inWashington.

Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Washington-basedCouncil on American-Islamic Relations, welcomed the event as anaffirmation of American Muslims.

"It shows recognition of the American Muslim community and it showsthat Muslims are finally on the radar screen of the politicalestablishment," he said. "It's the symbolism of the event that's themost important thing."