AFRICOM Imam leads first Iftar with U.S., SNA leaders

U.S. Navy Cmdr. Abuhena Saifulislam, U.S. Africa Command deputy command chaplain, leads a prayer before an Iftar with members of the Somali National Army at the Mogadishu International Airport, Mogadishu, Somalia, June 5, 2017. This was the first Iftar held between U.S. and SNA military personnel. Additionally, it was the first led by a U.S. Imam, who is a leader in the Islamic faith. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Eboni Prince)

The setting sun over the western skies of Mogadishu, Somalia, on June 5, 2017, not only signaled the end of the daily fasting over the month of Ramadan, but also marked an important step in building relationships between the U.S. and Somali military leadership.

This was the first time a U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) Imam led an Iftar at the Mogadishu International Airport for U.S. personnel from AFRICOM, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), the Mogadishu Coordination Cell, as well as Somali National Army leaders.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Miguel Castellanos, deputy commanding general for CJTF-HOA in Somalia and Mogadishu Coordination Cell director was the senior U.S. military host of the event.

The event required close coordination between the U.S. hosts and the SNA partners. Using a pair of headphones, Col. Nuuraani Ali Dirir, Liaison Officer for European Training Mission in Somalia, listened intently for the international Islamic call to prayer, which announced the moment when Muslims should line up for the beginning of each prayer.

After Ali Dirir gave the cue to begin, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Abuhena Saifulislam, U.S. Africa Command deputy command chaplain, led six other Somali National Army guests to a designated area in which they would pray before partaking in the Iftar feast.

Saifulislam, originally from Bangladesh, India, served as the Imam for the evening prayers.

Per the Islam faith, Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection, improvement and increased devotion and worship. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the soul by freeing it from harmful impurities.  The prayers proclaim Muslims’ belief and trust in God as they fast.

Immediately following, the guests gathered around a table to break bread with one another.

“To have American and Somali military members praying and feasting together during Ramadan has never happened here [in Mogadishu] before,” said Ali Dirir.

Saifulislam shared that finding common ground through fellowship, in spite of differences, can do nothing but build towards the ultimate goal of a better, more peaceful Somalia.

“It is human nature to find things that differentiate ourselves from one another,” said Saifulislam. “When we take time to overcome that, look for similarities and share our values to those who work closely with us, we can develop a mutual understanding.”

It is this understanding that all hope will aid in accomplishing many other shared goals and coordinated efforts, including enabling the Federal Government of Somalia to defeat al-Shabaab in Somalia and successfully transition security functions to the Somali National Security Forces.

This combined Iftar also afforded Castellanos, the senior U.S. military officer in Somalia, to meet with many of the SNA leaders he will continue to work with to strengthen the U.S.-Somalia relationship.

“In the U.S., there are many traditions and observances that mean a lot to us,” said Castellanos to his Somali guests. “It is also our military tradition to celebrate and observe all faiths with those who serve with us so I am very thankful for the opportunity to share in this tradition with you.”

Saifulislam highlighted the message of reconciliation and inclusiveness.

“Any struggle and fight is not against a religion,” said Saifulislam. “We are with you in this and both are striving for the same goals– peace and stability.”