The U.S. military ordered soldiers to remove a cross and a steeple from atop a chapel and to board up cross-shaped windows at a remote American forward operating base in Afghanistan.
The removal of Christian symbols from the chapel at Forward Operating Base Orgun-E came after a solider complained — leading American Atheists president David Silverman to send a letter to the Pentagon.
“Soldiers with minority religious beliefs and atheists often feel like second-class citizens when Christianity is seemingly officially endorsed by their own base,” Silverman told Fox News. “We are very happy the Pentagon and the Army decided to do the right thing.”
Silverman said a Christian chapel on an Army base in Afghanistan could have put American troops in danger.
“It inflames this Muslim versus Christian mentality,” he said. “This is not a Muslim versus Christian war — but if the Army base has a large chapel on it that has been converted to Christian-only, it sends a message that could be interpreted as hostile to Islam.
An Army spokesman at the Pentagon told Fox News that “local command in Afghanistan is aware of this chapel and has taken appropriate action to ensure that it is changed into a neutral facility.”
The Army spokesman confirmed doors to the chapel were boarded up because of the cross-shaped windows.
“They have already removed the cross from the top of the building,” the Army spokesman told Fox News. “The primary purpose of making a chapel a neutral, multi-use facility, is to accommodate the free exercise of religion for all faith groups using it.”
Army Regulation 165-1 states:
”The chapel environment will be religiously neutral when the facility is not being used for scheduled worship. Portable religious symbols, icons, or statues may be used within a chapel during times of religious worship.”
“Symbols are to be moved or covered when not in use during services. Distinctive religious symbols, such as crosses, crucifixes, the Star of David, Menorah, and other religious symbols will not be affixed or displayed permanently on the chapel interior, exterior, or grounds. Permanent or fixed chapel furnishings, such as the altar, pulpit, lectern, or communion rail will be devoid of distinctive religious symbols.”
The Christian cleansing brought condemnation from religious liberty advocates like Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
“Under this Administration, the military has become a Christianity-free zone,” Perkins told Fox News. “As a veteran, there’s an irony here. You put on the uniform to defend freedom — chief among them is freedom of religion. And yet, you are stripped of your own freedom to practice your faith.”
“This is not about imposing religion on a people we’ve freed from oppression,” Perkins said. “This is about American soldiers having the ability to practice their own faith.”
Silverman stressed that their complaint was not an attack on Christianity.
The chapels are for every member of the service – even the atheists,” Silverman said. “This is not an attack on Christianity. This is an equalization of the chapel’s use in compliance with Army regulations.”
Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, hailed the military’s decision.
“It is the sort of thing that provides a boundless bonanza of terrorist propaganda for the mujahedeen, the insurrectionists, the Taliban and al-Qaida that we are supposedly fighting to protect our national security,” he said. “The message of the cross on the chapel is basically putting out the message in Pashto, Dari and Arabic to please blow me up because I’m a latter day Christian crusader.”
Justin Griffith, the military director for American Atheists, said the Christian symbols were sending the wrong message to non-Christians.
“The US military is not in the business of building churches in Afghanistan,” he told Fox News. “A church steeple could easily be seen as ‘crusader’ imagery to the local population. They got ahead of this one, and by responding to American Atheists demands, they put the pin back in the grenade.”
He also said the Christian imagery was disrespectful to non-Christians.
“A military chapel is a shared space, and it must remain religiously neutral,” he said. “A Jewish person wouldn’t go to a local church to worship in the civilian world. It would be unethical to force a Jewish soldier to worship in a church building, as there is no other designated place.”
It’s not the first time the military has ordered a chapel cleansed of Christian symbols.
In 2011, the Army ordered the removal of a cross from a chapel at Camp Marmal – a decision that led some soldiers to accuse the military of a “direct attack against Christianity and Judaism.”
“Military chapels have to be open to all denominations and as such can’t have permanent symbols of one particular religion or another,” Commander William Speaks told Fox News in 2011.
“My personal feeling is that it is a direct attack against Christianity and Judaism,” one soldier told Fox News. “When you look at the regulation and you notice the four items directly quoted are crosses, crucifixes, the Star of David and the Menorah.”
The Army regulation makes no specific mention of the wheel of Dharma, Pentagram, Pentacle, Star and Crescent or the Yin and Yang symbol, he noted.
And while Christian symbols are being removed from chapels, there has been at least one instance of a gay pride flag being raised at a base in Afghanistan. Click here to read our original story.
Photographs purporting to show the rainbow flag flying over the base stirred widespread debate after it was posted on Facebook.