Ambassador Chung’s Remarks at Iftar Dinner

April 6, 2023

Moulavi Faiz, Moulavi Arshad, Ministers, Members of Parliament, fellow chiefs of mission, distinguished guests, Youth Forum members, friends, Assalaamu Alekhum.  I wish all of you Ramadan Mubarak and I am pleased to welcome you to this Iftar.

This is my second Iftar since arriving as Ambassador last year.  Last year’s event was the first large gathering I hosted in Sri Lanka.  And while it’s been a challenging year for Sri Lankans since then, I hold great admiration for the resilience of the Sri Lankan people, including the Muslim community.  Your strength, perseverance, and positive vision for the future are inspiring.

This year marks 75 years of bilateral relations between the U.S. and Sri Lanka, a relationship seeped in progress, people, and partnership.  The Muslim community is an integral part of our bilateral story.  During the past year, I have been fortunate to see first-hand how the Muslim community contributes to good governance, business, education, culture, sports, and more.   From the melodic call to prayer we can hear in parts of Colombo, to the stunning architecture of mosques, to delicious Sri Lankan buriyani and my favorite dessert wattalappam — the Muslim community’s vibrance is deeply woven throughout the cultural tapestry of Sri Lanka. 

I saw this when I met with members of the Muslim community last September in Galle Fort.  I heard the stories of families who have called the Fort home for a thousand years.  I heard the strong sense of community they hold with their brothers and sisters across faiths and how that community strength has sustained them through devastating losses such as the 2004 tsunami.  Their example is genuinely uplifting.  

I have been fortunate to visit many other Muslim communities across Sri Lanka too, including to the oldest mosque in Jaffna.  I also met with female Muslim activists in Batticaloa and Trincomalee, and here in Colombo, I visited the historic Dewatagaha mosque and the Red Mosque.  I think I see some familiar faces here tonight from that wonderful visit.  I was also honored to attend the YMMA’s annual general meeting last year and I look forward to meeting soon with the ACJU and visiting the Bohra mosque in Colombo. 

During this month of Ramadan,  as we consider the importance of spiritual renewal, I wanted to take a moment to share my hope for Sri Lanka more broadly: that the nation is starting the journey towards economic recovery and the implementation of vital economic and governance reforms.  The work ahead will not be easy, and it will require the strength and resilience of all Sri Lankans, but promoting transparency and good governance will help build a stronger country that sustains and celebrates all its diversity.  

The United States is committed to helping Sri Lanka achieve this, and we stand ready to support all communities.  Over the past year we provided Sri Lanka with an additional 270 million US dollars in new support, from fertilizer for farmers to financing for small businesses, which has helped communities across the country, including Muslim communities.

I am pleased that the U.S. Embassy has a variety of programs that welcome participation from across Sri Lanka’s diverse ethnic, linguistic, and faith communities.  For example the English Access Microscholarship Program provides free English training to students 13-15 years old, bringing together children from all ethnic and religious backgrounds for afterschool learning and summer camps – often the very first chance they have ever had to meet one another. Many of our Access students are from Muslim communities and I met some of these inspiring boys and girls when in Kandy and Galle.

The Embassy’s Youth Forum is another of our initiatives that I am most proud of.  We recently convened 60 young people from across the island for our first Youth Forum Summit since 2019, which included a visit from President Ranil Wickremesinghe.  I was pleased to see so many young Muslim men and women leaders actively engaged in the forum and committed to leading Sri Lanka into the future.

I want to highlight one Youth Forum member, Ramla Naufer, who completed English and media literacy classes at our American Center.  Ramla teaches Commerce, History and English to more than 100 secondary grade students.  She also volunteers in local and international organizations and started her own organization to support women around Sri Lanka.   I am very proud of Ramla and honored that she joins us tonight.  And I know many of you here this evening have similarly inspiring stories, helping your communities and your country.

Ramadan is a season of reflection, prayer, charity, community, and renewal.  In the United States, it’s an opportunity for us to honor Muslim American communities that have been an essential element of the American fabric since our founding and who continue to strengthen our nation’s diversity, talent, and future, generation after generation.  

Ramadan is also an opportune time to recognize how freedom of religion and belief plays a crucial role in realizing the full potential of multi-ethnic, multi-religious countries, and helps them to become a more perfect union, words that hold special prominence for Americans.  My Christian faith is important to me, and I treasure the ability to nurture friendships and understanding with those from across diverse religious traditions.  At the heart of all religious sentiment is connection with the Holy, and kindness towards our neighbors.  I would like to echo President Biden in his own Ramadan message, where he called for all Americans to “join together across cultures and faiths and renew our commitment to creating a more equal, more just, more tolerant, and more compassionate nation.”  I saw Sri Lankans across communities come together this past year for the common objective of rebuilding the nation, as we head towards recovery, this unity becomes even more important. 

Today is a celebration of friendship and community.  I thank you for your support, and I am immensely grateful for partnership that America and Sri Lanka have built together.  I thank you again for joining us this evening and wish you all a blessed Ramadan.