published Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Troops complain about Nativity scene at Guantanamo

Troops eat lunch near a nativity scene at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, Wednesday, Dec, 18, 2013.
Troops eat lunch near a nativity scene at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, Wednesday, Dec, 18, 2013.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Some troops at Guantanamo Bay want the U.S. Navy to remove Nativity scenes and Christmas decorations from two base dining facilities, saying they improperly promote Christianity over other faiths, an organization that advocates for religious freedom in the military said Wednesday.

A group of 18 service members from several faiths contacted the Military Religious Freedom Foundation for help in removing the Nativity scenes and decorations because they figured they would be ignored and feared retribution, said Mikey Weinstein, the president of the organization.

The troops prefer to remain anonymous because of a possible backlash, he said. "They are terrified. Right now, there is a witch hunt going on to find out who did this."

Eleven of those who complained are Protestant or Roman Catholic and the rest are Muslim, Jewish, agnostic or atheist, Weinstein said.

A base spokeswoman, Kelly Wirfel, said the commander, Capt. John Nettleton, was considering whether to remove the scenes or relocate them but had not yet made a decision.

The naval base, located in southeastern Cuba, has a population of about 5,500 military and civilian personnel. Outside the coils of razor wire surrounding an area where nearly 160 prisoners are held, the base has set up many exterior displays of Christmas lights and other decorations along wide streets, creating the feel of a typical suburban American town in December.

At issue are decorations inside two dining facilities, one of which is used primarily by people who work inside the prison such as guards and translators. An email sent to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation from the troops says the Nativity scenes went up in late November in the center of the eating area and no other religions are represented despite the presence of other faiths on the base.

"By placing these displays in prominent common areas, the impression is that one faith is better than others and that the military institution singularly promotes Christianity," says the email, provided to The Associated Press by the organization without the names of the senders.

The email goes on to say that prominent members of their command have shown "Christian religious undertones," which leads them to believe they could not complain directly to them about the decorations. The senders said they put up with a great deal of hardship in their jobs, including having bodily fluids hurled at them by prisoners, and should not be made uncomfortable on their time off.

"We would prefer to not have a large deal made out of this situation and only ask that these clear violations of military policy, and the Constitution, be removed immediately," the email said.

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