US Army Removes Cross from Afghan Chapel
Before and after courtesy photo originally published at Politico.com.
At first, this situation seems similar to the US Army’s removal of crosses from the chapel in Kosovo a few years ago.
However, the current issue is actually somewhat more complex.
First, US military policies are not necessarily identical among the services. Most US military regulations generally acknowledge the necessary “neutrality” of chapel facilities, but that is not universal. This is something Pentagon spokesman William Speaks (Commander, US Navy) didn’t seem to understand, as he cited an Army regulation:
Speaks said it is his understanding that the rule applies not just to that particular camp – but all military chapels.
Many regulations do reference permanent or “architectural” features (though, again, that is not universal). The Camp Marmal cross was apparently left hanging on the wall long-term, but there is nothing to prevent the chaplains from re-hanging the cross as often as they want — so long as it does not remain a permanent fixture.
Second, its not actually a US military base: Camp Marmal is a German-run military facility. In theory, then, US military regulations wouldn’t apply. However, through an awkward arrangement, the US Army apparently has control over that particular building. So Army regulations apply to one building, but not necessarily the others — which makes for an odd contrast discussed below.
Third, categorically saying US military chapel facilities have to be “religiously neutral” is inaccurate. In fact, it is not unusual for US military bases to have specific-faith chapels when facilities exist for other faiths.
As noted previously, the world-famous US Air Force Academy chapel has a Protestant sanctuary with a 50-foot tall cross hanging at the front — quite permanently. It also has Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, and Buddhist sanctuaries, not to mention the “All Faiths” room and the outdoor Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle intended for pagans. While “ecumenical” meetings can be held in any space, USAFA regulations specifically prohibit “neutralizing” the faith-specific chapel areas.
In fact, Air Force documents specifically note
Religious facilities should be geared toward meeting the needs of the majority religious population on the installation but should also provide adequate spaces for members of other organized religions on the installation. [emphasis added]
This is relevant in this case because Camp Marmal has not one but two other faith specific chapels — both mosques. While the Politico article notes the cross was removed after a complaint, servicemembers reported Jewish servicemembers had used the chapel without complaint. Consistent with the beliefs of the anonymous servicemembers quoted in the article, the “complaint” seems to have been both targeted — and vicarious.
While a strong self-defense is a natural reaction, an overreaction to someone else’s hypersensitivity isn’t necessary, and it may not help.
Does the removal smack of the seemingly increasing cultural hypersensitivity toward Christianity? Absolutely. Does it inherently restrict the military members’ free exercise? Not necessarily. Does it favor — or target — a religion? Perhaps, though the policy seems to be applied equally to the American facilities at Camp Marmal, even if not the other buildings there.
In this case, Pentagon spokesman Commander William Speaks said
“The removal was, in fact, in accordance with Army regulations” and [he] pointed out that the Army chaplain manual prohibits permanent display of religious symbols.
They didn’t say it couldn’t be displayed — only that it couldn’t be displayed permanently. The chaplains at Camp Marmal should follow the regulations (as they have), as the military leadership has interpreted them.
And they should raise the cross at every opportunity.