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At Pentagon, Muslims pray without protests

August 21, 2010

Without controversy or protests, Muslims kneel in prayer every day at a quiet Pentagon chapel, only steps away from where a hijacked airliner struck the building on September 11, 2001.

The tranquil atmosphere at the Pentagon is a stark contrast to the furor surrounding a planned mosque near Ground Zero in New York, with opponents arguing the proposed Islamic center is an insult to the memory of the 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks.

"I've been here almost four years and I've never heard of any complaints," US Army spokesman George Wright said of the regular Muslim services.

Families of those killed in the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11 have not raised objections over the Islamic services, he said.

On Friday afternoon, an imam led about 18 Muslim men and women in prayer. They knelt beneath a stained-glass window bearing an image of the Pentagon, an American bald eagle and the words: "United in memory, September 11, 2001."

A woman at the service was in uniform -- combat camouflage -- and clad in a head scarf, one of more than 3,000 Muslims who serve in the US military.

While they prayed, a young Marine officer led a group of visitors on a tour of the Pentagon in the corridor, describing the impact of the plane hijacked by men who portrayed themselves as Muslim warriors.

About 60 feet (18 meters) away from the chapel, American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the west side of the Pentagon on 9/11, killing 184 people. The chapel, and a memorial room for the victims of the attack, were added when the damaged wing of the building was rebuilt.

The chapel is open to all faiths, and shortly before the Friday prayers, there was a Jewish service on the schedule.

"There are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Episcopal, Hindu and Muslim services," Wright said.

The Pentagon chaplain's office has recently received inquiries about possible Buddhist services at the chapel as well, he told AFP.

With its windows decorated in patriotic instead of religious themes, the chapel evokes a temple dedicated to America.

Apart from a Roman Catholic font for holy water beside the entrance and Bibles tucked under seats, the spartan room offers a neutral spiritual space, resembling "multi-faith" chapels at US bases around the world.

A memorial room next to the chapel commemorates those killed and wounded at the Pentagon in 2001, with a list of soldiers and civilians awarded medals for wounds suffered that day.

Just outside the building from the chapel, US presidents have placed wreaths at a plaque honoring the victims of the strike.

After the Islamic prayers, the employees gathered up prayer rugs and started back to their offices.

One of the men at the service said attendance has picked up since the beginning of Ramadan.

He said he does not have to keep a low profile as a Muslim working at the headquarters of the US military, but asked to be quoted only by his first name, Faisal.

He viewed the Islamic prayers at the Pentagon as perfectly natural, and in keeping with the American values.

"It's the ultimate representation of America -- freedom of religion," he said, before walking back to work.

Some service members working in the vast building said they did not know even know about the chapel, or the Islamic services, until media coverage this week.

One Air Force officer, however, said she had mixed feelings about Muslim prayers near the Pentagon's memorial site.

On the one hand, freedom of worship illustrated "the beauty of America," said the officer, who asked not to be named.

But she worried about how families of victims might see it and that so many military service members had died on 9/11 at the hands of extremists who identified themselves as Muslims.

"It's a difficult one to get your arms around, or embrace," she said.

However, the military is not entirely immune from religious controversy.

Asked to confirm reports that some US Army soldiers at Fort Eustis in Virginia were punished and ordered to clean their barracks after refusing to attend a concert by a Christian band, army spokesman Colonel Tom Collins told AFP: "The command has initiated an investigation."

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