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Servicemembers in Bahrain will have a live Nativity scene after all.
The performance has been rescheduled for Christmas Eve after an atheist group complained that the original event to be held during the base tree-lighting ceremony amounted to command sponsorship of a Christian holiday and threatened the safety of servicemembers in the Muslim-majority country.
"The Nativity scene being held on ... Dec. 24 will be very similar to the originally scheduled program," said base spokeswoman Jennifer Stride.
Stride would not explain why the initial Nativity performance was canceled.
Naval Support Activity Bahrain had hosted a live Nativity in 2010 and 2011 during its annual tree-lighting ceremony that also featured Santa Claus and his wife. The base planned to continue the tradition during its Dec. 6 tree-lighting, but changed its plans after the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers wrote a complaint to the inspector general responsible for Navy installations demanding that the performance be investigated because it promoted "Christianity as the official religion of the base."
Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said he never wanted the Nativity scene to be canceled and had initially been told by Navy officials that it would be rescheduled during a more appropriate event.
"I'm happy to hear the original relocation decision stands," he said Friday.
The MAAF regularly objects to religious events at military bases and had also complained this year about Christmas events at Army bases in Honolulu and Fort Belvoir, Va. Earlier this year, the group found fault with a gospel concert held at the Navy's Bahrain base during the final week of Ramadan. None of these events was canceled.
The atheist group insists Christmas trees, Santa Claus and other secular holiday traditions are OK, but finds fault with public displays of angels, Nativity scenes, prayers and any other symbols that appear to endorse Christian doctrine.
In Bahrain, MAAF initially opposed the Nativity performance because it had been scheduled as part of a base-wide holiday party.
"It is dishonest for the command to attempt to advertise the event as a 'holiday' activity when it is so clearly and exclusively biased toward Christianity," MAAF wrote in its official complaint. "Also of concern is the likelihood that the predominantly Muslim local population will see the U.S. military as a Christian force rather than as a secular military … in their Muslim country."
Christmas is openly celebrated in Bahrain by foreigners and its Christian-minority population.
The rescheduled Nativity performance will be held at the base chapel. Any props and costumes used for the Nativity have been donated or made from recycled materials, and all participants are volunteers, Stride said.
Chaplain events are open to all Navy personnel, Stride said.
"They make every effort to facilitate observances held on the base for any faith group requesting it," she said.