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It's Ramadan, and last year, President Trump skipped the annual White House iftar dinner, ending a 20-year tradition. But there was another prominent U.S. leader at the dinner this week. The top general of the U.S. Marine Corps stopped by a mosque outside of Baltimore, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: It's a hard time of year to fast with 15 hours of daylight, so the hundred or more Ahmadi Muslims who turned out at the House of the Eternal mosque were probably thinking mostly about a cold glass of water and dinner. But first, they welcomed their special guest.
MANSOOR SHAMS: Sir, you are amongst patriots. I'm deeply honored today to extend my welcome to General Neller.
LAWRENCE: Mansoor Shams, the Marine veteran who invited him, introduced Marine Commandant Robert Neller.
ROBERT NELLER: You know, I don't consider coming to your mosque to be anything extraordinary, I mean, other than he asked me and he is a Marine and he asked me to come and I said yes.
LAWRENCE: Except it was extraordinary since just the night before, President Trump held a Ramadan dinner which included mostly foreign dignitaries. No mainstream American Muslim organizations were invited. At the mosque outside Baltimore, General Neller would not take media questions, but he did take some from the audience, mostly about how Muslims are perceived by fellow Americans.
NELLER: There are always going to be somebody who say, you know, they try to put - lump large groups of people in single categories. But I think as a Marine, I mean, I'm more interested in the individual and their ability to serve.
LAWRENCE: Neller told some stories about his travels as a Marine to places where he was the minority as a white, Catholic American. But he said that in combat, all the distinctions of race and religion of your fellow Marine fall away. For Mansoor Shams, the event was...
SHAMS: Amazing (laughter) amazing.
LAWRENCE: Shams says he wrote the commandant last year, not expecting a response, but Neller did write back and eventually asked Shams to speak to Marine officers about Islam. Neller told Shams that coming to the mosque was a way to return the favor.
SHAMS: It gave me more hope. It gave me more optimism that even when you're going through those bumps on the road, where you're getting bashed left and right for your faith, that when you have the commandant of the Marine Corps standing there like a true patriot, an American, in your mosque, it just gives you some goosebumps that say everything's going to be OK.
LAWRENCE: Shams has been organizing iftar dinners all this month with veterans. He says vets are one of the most respected groups in the country right now, and he feels like Muslim Americans are one of the most disparaged. As a member of both, he wants to change that. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY PECORARO'S "MUSIC FOR HAPPINESS")
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