Celebrate the diversity of Oklahoma and find the courage to build bridges of connection with people who are different.

That was the message shared by University of Central Oklahoma President Don Betz at the third annual Oklahoma State Capitol Interfaith Iftar Dinner on Tuesday at the state Capitol.

The event, held in the Capitol’s second-floor rotunda, drew a crowd of about 225 to join with Muslims as they prepared to break their Ramadan fast with dinner and sweet dates, a fruit traditionally eaten at sunset.

During Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, observant Muslims abstain from food, drink and sensual pleasures from dawn to sunset. Iftar is the meal they eat at sunset.

Tuesday’s event was co-hosted by state Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, Sen. John Sparks, R-Norman, and Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Sayre.

Virgin, who hosted the first two Capitol Iftar events, said the dinner was one of her favorite activities because of the interfaith fellowship.

“We get to reflect on how we are all alike, rather than how we are different,” she said.

Betz, as the evening’s keynote speaker, said members of the crowd were helping to shape the face of Oklahoma.

“You are part of that diversity — all of you,” he said.

“Your interest sends a crucial message well beyond these chambers that this is not a state that is stagnant … and that change is crucial.”

Betz talked from his extensive experience and travels in the Middle East and other parts of the world. From 1982-2003, Betz worked for and with the United Nations on Middle East issues. He founded and chaired the International Coordinating Committee on the Question of Palestine, a U.N.-affiliated nongovernmental organization/network pursuing peace in the Middle East based on U.N. resolutions.

Betz told attendees that they cannot build bridges across cultural and religious lines without courage to deal “with tough issues.” He said these courageous efforts will help widen the guests’ “circle” of family, a concept he said came from renowned humanitarian Mother Teresa.

“She challenged me and said I had an opportunity to draw an even wider circle,” Betz said.

Other speakers reflected on the concept of fasting in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. Speakers included the Rev. William Tabbernee, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches; Charles Kimball, Ph.D., author, presidential professor and director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma; and Imad Enchassi, imam and president of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City.

Kimball said at one time he lived in Cairo and he was impressed with Muslims who observed the Ramadan fast in August despite the extremely hot Egyptian weather and 13 hours of sunlight. He said for these Muslims, as well as people of many other faith traditions, fasting has always had many benefits.

“It is a sacrifice and also a very great gift,” Kimball said.

Enchassi said Ramadan is about piety.

“Ramadan and fasting is not about shedding pounds, it’s about shedding egos and attitudes,” he said.