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

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

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

Fresh from peace talks between Syrian and Israeli leaders, Clinton said 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 these talks these last few days to see the impact of the month of Ramadan and the Eid on the believers in the Syrian delegation who were here," the president said. "It was quite a moving thing, and I hope that your prayers will stay with them."

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

"Today Muslim-Americans are a cornerstone of our American community," he said. "They enrich our political and cultural life; they provide leadership in every field of human endeavor from business to medicine to scholarship."

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

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

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

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

Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, welcomed the event as an affirmation of American Muslims.

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

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