American soldiers and sailors will celebrate an old-fashioned Christmas in the Saudi desert next week, complete with festively decorated trees, troupes of Christmas carolers and, for those who can get a break from late-night duty, the traditional midnight Mass.
But if the Pentagon has its way on Dec. 25, the Saudi public and the rulers of this Muslim nation will barely notice the celebrations.
Outside of war plans, perhaps no subject is treated by the Defense Department officials here with such sensitivity and secrecy as that of religion. Military officials say the nearly 300,000 American troops in Saudi Arabia as part of the international force arrayed against Iraq are being permitted to worship as they choose, but quietly and with discretion. Symbols Hidden Under Uniforms
The idea, they say, is to avoid any offense to the religious leaders of Saudi Arabia, a nation that recognizes only one faith: Islam.
"As the guardians of Islam's holy places, the Saudis restrict the overt practice of proselytizing of any religion other than Islam," the Pentagon said in a statement outlining its policy on religious worship. "Our personnel, whether Jewish, Christian or any other faith, are free to practice their religion as long as they do so in a discreet manner."Continue reading the main story
That means that while there is a full range of religious services on American military installations in Saudi Arabia, soldiers who wear a cross or a Star of David around their necks must keep the symbol hidden beneath their uniforms. There are reports of some Army commanders who limit the display of religious symbols even at private gatherings.
American soldiers are being warned not to discuss their religious beliefs with Saudis and not to take Bibles outside their compound. They are told that in public settings, their religious services should be described as "fellowship meetings," and their chaplains identified only as "morale officers."
On Christmas Day, soldiers will have church services and a full Christmas feast with turkey and the trimmings. But all of it will take place on military installations, away from the Saudi public. Some Concern Among Troops
Restrictions are also being applied to journalists, who are barred from observing any religious services on American military installations and are routinely refused interviews with chaplains. Western reporters who wish to worship are advised to seek out an invitation to one of the many services organized privately by expatriate workers in Al Khobar, the Persian Gulf port five miles southeast of here.
The rules have disturbed some American soldiers and sailors, who say they resent that any prohibitions have been put on their religious freedom, especially in a country that they are now being asked to defend with their lives.
"Saudi Arabia invited us to come here, and I believe we should be able to practice our religion openly, however we choose," said Specialist Smiley Wilson, a 20-year-old soldier from Philadelphia who is part of a chemical-warfare decontamination squad in the Army's 82d Airborne Division. "Why can't I wear a cross around my neck and show it if I want to?"
Pvt. Mylinda Harr of the Army, 26, of Roanoke, Va., usually wears a cross around her neck. "But I don't now," she said. The restrictions on public religious displays "have really upset a couple of people I know," she said. "They feel they should be allowed to worship however they want." 'This Is a Muslim Country'
Military officials say the Pentagon agreed to the restrictions at the request of the Saudi Government. Saudi officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say their Government is willing to allow Christian and Jewish soldiers to worship on Saudi soil but that public religious displays would upset the nation's fundamentalist religious leaders.
"This is a Muslim country, and the fundamentalists have much power," a Saudi said. "We have always had many people of many faiths working in Saudi Arabia. They can all worship God as they choose. All we ask is that it be done quietly."
Asked about the restrictions on journalists, Defense Department officials said there was also a fear that Iraq might use news coverage of non-Islamic worship services in Saudi Arabia, particularly television broadcasts, as a propaganda tool.
"Can't you see Saddam getting videotape of a Hanukkah service or of soldiers singing 'Silent Night' and running it on TV over and over again, and arguing that the Islamic holy places are being defiled?" a Defense Department official said, referring to President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. "It would be garbage, of course. But it would also be dangerous for everyone." Sticking to 'Jingle Bells'
Journalists had been allowed to visit military installations in Saudi Arabia where Christmas preparations were under way. But soldiers meeting with the journalists have been urged by their commanders not to discuss the holiday's religious significance and, if Christmas carols are sung for reporters, to stick to nonreligious tunes like "Jingle Bells."
The question of religious worship would appear to be particularly uncomfortable for Jewish soldiers, some of whom said they were torn about defending a country that has repeatedly vowed to destroy Israel and whose leaders often speak of "conspiracies" by Zionists. There are estimated to be 700 Jewish soldiers and airmen among the American troops in Saudi Arabia.
"Sure, I can think of places I'd rather be right now," said a Jewish infantryman from the eastern United States. "But this is my assignment, and my duty." He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying, "I may just finish up in an Iraqi P.O.W. camp some day, and I'd just as soon not have them single out a Jew for special treatment."
Whatever their discomfort, Jewish soldiers say they are being allowed to worship in Saudi Arabia largely as they please. 500 Menorahs Shipped
Hanukkah ended Wednesday. During the eight-day holiday, Jewish soldiers gathered each night in small celebrations on military installations across Saudi Arabia for services that included the traditional lighting of a menorah.
"The services were wonderful and probably more meaningful than at many synagogues and temples in America," said Rabbi David Lapp, director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council in New York.
In an interview in New York, Rabbi Lapp, who helped organize the shipment of more than 500 menorahs to Saudi Arabia for Hanukkah, said the low-key services were organized "in spite of all the fears we had," an allusion to the apparently unfounded rumors that, among other things, Jewish religious articles would be banned from the country.
He said the Chaplains Council so far had no trouble transporting Jewish ritual items and books into Saudi Arabia, as long as they were not manufactured in Israel. Limits of Logistics
Rabbi Lapp said three Jewish chaplains were in Saudi Arabia, two more were on the way, and two were on nearby American ships. At a high point in the Vietnam buildup, in 1970-71, he said, there were only four Jewish chaplains in Vietnam.
Rabbi Lapp said he had come to believe that for American soldiers seeking to worship in Saudi Arabia, "there is no more anti-Semitism than anti-Christianity."
He said he had recently received a letter from a Jewish lay leader in Saudi Arabia who meets with 5 to 10 other worshipers each Friday night who have taken a Hebrew name that translates as "the Jewish Congregation of the Arab Desert."
The limitations put on private religious services in Saudi Arabia, whether Jewish or Christian, are often those of logistics. 'I Haven't Seen a Cross'
In the remote desert camps where tens of thousands of American troops are now stationed, worship services tend to be limited -- members of separate Protestant denominations pray together, for example -- and are sometimes held under camouflaged tarpaulins or in mess tents. In larger military installations near Saudi cities, the worship services are more varied and can be held in private auditoriums.
Although Pentagon officials would release few details about the services, soldiers said it appeared that individual company commanders were given discretion in organizing religious activites, and in determining what will and what will not offend Saudis who live and work nearby.
Although there is no military-wide rule banning the display of crucifixes at private religious services, some soldiers say crosses are never displayed at the services, apparently because commanders fear that a Saudi wandering into the installation might be offended by the sight.
"There are prayers and there's a choir, but I haven't seen a cross anywhere," said Pvt. Juan Larregui, a 20-year-old mechanic from Carolinas, P.R., who attends church services every Sunday morning at 9 in a converted mess tent. 'Need That Spiritual Growth'
Another member of his company, Sgt. Freddie Hill, 25, said the lack of crucifixes caused him little concern.
"I think the religious services here are super," he said. "We need that spiritual growth, that spiritual comfort, and I don't need a cross in the room to allow me to worship God."
The restrictions on religious displays appear to diminish, even disappear, the farther soldiers are from Saudi population centers, especially in the remote desert camps.
"We can basically do what we want to do for our religious ceremonies," said Sgt. Craig Simmons, a 27-year-old tank gunner from Charleston, S.C., who has been in Saudi Arabia for four months and is stationed close to the Kuwaiti border. "That's one of the good things about being in the desert."
There are well-attended Bible-study classes on Tuesday nights, he said, and on Sunday dozens of soldiers gather under a large camouflague tent in the desert for the separate Catholic and Protestant services. At the Protestant services, the sergeant said, a foot-high black crucifix is openly displayed atop a small cloth-covered table.
"We don't have to hide the cross," he said, "because there, there aren't any Saudis -- there isn't anyone else -- to notice."Continue reading the main story