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Muslim GIs Barred From Services

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The convoy that left Sunday from the 1st Armored Division encampment here included a tank driven by Ahmed Elhabrouk, a soft-spoken private from New York City.

Elhabrouk and his platoon were being sent to establish an outpost in territory patrolled by NATO peacekeepers. But he rolled out of here with a heavy heart.

Elhabrouk is an American soldier. He is also a Muslim. He and two other Muslim soldiers want to celebrate Ramadan, a monthlong Islamic holiday beginning this weekend that requires fasting and a carefully scripted ritual of prayers.

But Elhabrouk and the others will be nowhere near a mosque this weekend. The U.S. Army has forbidden it. Their presence at Bosnian worship services, the Army says, could be dangerous and seen as American favoritism toward Muslims.

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“The word came down. It is a done deal,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Rayburn, a platoon commander in Alpha Troop, where Elhabrouk and Spc. Brian Lewis, another Muslim soldier, are deployed. “This is a religious war here in Bosnia. If they see an American going to a mosque, the political decision was made that it will show Americans are taking sides.”

The Americans have nearly 50 traveling chaplains in Bosnia-Herzegovina and offer Roman Catholic, Baptist, other Protestant, Mormon and Jewish services at the Tuzla air base, where U.S. forces are headquartered. Gospel programs are also in the works. But there is nothing available for Muslims.

Elhabrouk and the others say that not only have they been shortchanged, but it has happened in a country where tens of thousands of Muslims have died because of their faith and where 20,000 Americans will be risking their lives to keep religious peace.

Since the arrival of North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops, Elhabrouk contended, Bosnians of all faiths can worship without fear of persecution, but Americans of all faiths cannot. Somehow, he said, it does not seem right.

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“I don’t want out of the mission or the Army. I just want what America promised me--the right to practice my religion,” said Elhabrouk, 25, an Egyptian by birth. “I am an American by choice. But I want to put on this uniform knowing it stands for freedom and justice.”

American chaplains say it is an exaggeration to claim that the three American Muslims have been denied their religious rights. Soldiers of all religions, they say, must adjust to conditions in the field, which often means adapting--or forgoing--rituals otherwise considered essential to their faiths.

Most Christians, for example, could not attend church on Christmas. Communion is often celebrated on the hood of a Humvee with powdered grape juice, and Orthodox Christians and Episcopalians are sent to Roman Catholic Mass.

“Every church that has been represented in the military has made concessions to the faith,” said Lt. Col. Lee Thompson, the chief Air Force chaplain at the Tuzla base. “I would rather have my Protestant soldiers go to a Catholic Mass than jeopardize themselves. You can be as rigid as you want to be, but if you are so rigid that you cannot exercise your faith, you are the only loser.”

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Elhabrouk called the comparison unfair. There is no other service he can attend, he said, because none of them would come close to his.

“When I joined the Army, the only question they asked about my religion was whether I would have a problem killing people,” Elhabrouk said. “I said that I didn’t. They never said my religion would cause a problem.”

In an effort to resolve their predicament, the Muslim soldiers offered to return to their base in Germany until the end of Ramadan, but the request was rejected by their commanders.

Military officials said they feared the precedent set by such a move, particularly because many soldiers in Bosnia would rather not be here.

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Sgt. Glen M. Crawford, an administrator for the chaplain’s office, said military officials are looking into ways to accommodate Muslims at the Tuzla base, perhaps by inviting a local imam on base to perform services. But for soldiers deployed away from the base, including Elhabrouk and Lewis, it will be too little, too late.

“It is very sad, but if there is an Islamic soldier going out on a task, he is out of luck,” Thompson said. “We wish it weren’t true. But he also won’t be able to get a lawyer, or call a doctor if he has a headache. To be a soldier, some things you have to give up for a while.”


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