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Prayers and Guns in the House of God
Military.com  |  By Bryant Jordan  |  February 04, 2008
Soldiers may come to Chaplain (Maj.) David Langer's services for a little bit of peace. They may come for God.

But they come armed, nonetheless.

"Most of the guys just put their weapons under their chairs," said Langer, a Congregational minister and Army chaplain assigned to the 5th Iraqi Army Division Military Transition Team, which travels throughout Diyala province.

There are no rules against taking the weapons into the service, he said.

That may be the reality of war, but back home that practice sparked controversy after a watchdog group discovered that a Bible study group of Fort Jackson, S.C., included a program called "God's Basic Training" and boasted photos of trainees clutching rifles and Bibles - an image reminiscent of Islamic militant photos showing fighters holding rifles and Qurans.

The photos and the off-base church group Web site they were posted on have since been pulled down - at least temporarily - but the battalion policy of having trainees carry their weapons everywhere they go, including the chapel, remains in effect, a Fort Jackson spokeswoman told Military.com.

Depending on who you ask, the policy may or may not be a violation of the Geneva Conventions. But it was implemented at Fort Jackson to have the young troops train as if they are in the combat theater, where they can expect to carry their weapons everywhere they go, Chaplain (Maj.) Scott Bullock, chaplain for 2nd Battalion, 39th Basic Combat Training Bn., said in December.

The policy, like the controversial "God's Basic Training" photos, drew some criticism, including from the founder of a watchdog group dedicated to ending illegal religious proselytizing in the military, and some chaplains.

"The Geneva Convention does not allow American troops to bring firearms into a chapel or hospital lest it become a target for the enemy," said Mikey Weinstein, whose Military Religious Freedom Foundation discovered the "God's Basic Training" program at Fort Jackson and incorporated it and the photos into a lawsuit the foundation has brought against the Pentagon.

Retired Chaplain (Col.) Rabbi Joel Schwartzman of Denver, an Air Force Academy graduate who eventually served at his alma mater as a chaplain, expressed surprise at the battalion policy.
 
"In all my days in the chaplaincy we never had anyone try to bring a weapon into my chapel," he said. "Having been a senior chaplain at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., I find the whole notion of people bringing weapons into a house of God, or a hospital for that matter, astounding."
 
"I think the chaplaincy has lost its sense of purpose," said Schwartzman, who retired in 1998. "It's supposed to be supporting the military ... which is there to defend the Constitution, but a lot of these guys' (chaplains) thinking is ... how to serve their God and not the country."

One active-duty Air Force Christian chaplain said chapels are supposed to be weapons-free areas under the Geneva Conventions.

"Places of worship may not be used in support of the military effort," said the chaplain, who spoke on condition of anonymity, and the military has long taken this to mean no carrying or storing of weapons in a chapel.

While it also has accepted that small arms could be carried during brief outdoor services in field conditions, it has also recognized that any military action taken directly against the field chapel would not be prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, the chaplain said. "But in training during outdoor field worship, small arms are usually secured outside the area of worship."

But others with expertise in the laws of war see no issue with the recruits - or any soldiers - bringing their weapons into a chapel.

Anthony Dworkin, director of the Crimes of War Project in Washington, D.C., said he does not see it as a violation of the laws of war for soldiers to carry their weapons into a religious service, though protections afforded them by international law would be forfeited if the building becomes used for offensive military purposes.

And Michael Noone, who works with the American Society of International Law and is a professor at Catholic University Law School in Washington, said it hardly makes a difference anyway whether troops are carrying their weapons during a chapel service.

While carrying weapons into a chapel puts the facility at increased risk of becoming a legitimate military target, he said, "the mere presence of unarmed soldiers would make [chapels] a target in war time.

"Soldiers can't claim sanctuary in a chapel," he said in an e-mail to Military.com. "If the [enemy] applied the doctrines of necessity and proportionality and concluded that the soldiers should be attacked, then the destruction/damage to the chapel would be collateral."

Military.com editor Christian Lowe contributed to this report from Iraq.

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