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Muslims in military lack chaplains

Islam is the services' fastest-growing major religion, fueled in part by Gulf War conversions.

Rodney Streater grew up in a Christian family and flirted with the Nation of Islam as a young adult. But it wasn't until he had joined the Marine Corps that he converted to Islam and changed his name to Rashad El-Saddiq.

Haneef A. Mubarak told a similar story: The son of a Protestant minister, he read about Islam as a teenager but converted only after joining the Navy.

The two men are part of a trend: Islam is the fastest growing major religion in the military, fueled in part by a high rate of conversions that began during the Persian Gulf War. There are now more Muslims than Jews in the Army.

Yet there are only 10 Muslim chaplains for a population that the military estimates at 4,140, and that Muslims estimate at more than 10,000. Of 2,757 military chaplains, 2,288 are Protestant.

The military is turning to people like El-Saddiq and Mubarak to correct that imbalance. They are the first students in a program at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, an institution that once trained Christian missionaries on how to convert Muslims and that is now training Muslims to become military chaplains.

"When we mobilize soldiers and take them away from their home and their community, we have an obligation to provide religious support," said one chaplain, Janet Y. Horton, a Christian Scientist educated at Boston University who now serves as executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplains' Board at the Pentagon. "We are trying to be as inclusive as possible."

Mubarak, 30, says that through his 12 years in the Navy he often wished he had a Muslim chaplain to turn to for advice about religious observance, to help celebrate the birth of his children, or to help him learn about Islam. When he wanted to take 34 days off to make hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of every Muslim, he said, he wished he had a Muslim chaplain to smooth the way.

Instead, he found himself turning to a nearby mosque _ an option not available near every military base. And when he had an opportunity to make sure that Muslims in the military could turn to someone of their faith, he seized it.

"Just being a member of the military, you notice the needs of your faith group," said Mubarak, a native of Charlotte, N.C. "If one was to talk to 100 Muslims in the military, 65 would have encountered some difficulties dealing with being a minority worshiper."

Mubarak stumbled into the chaplaincy when, as one of 11 Muslims at a Navy base in Pensacola, he was asked to lead worship services. That experience piqued his interest, and now, at Hartford, after studying psychology in the military, he is studying Arabic and the life and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed.

El-Saddiq, a native of New York, became interested in becoming a chaplain when he read a newspaper story about the first Muslim chaplain. So he set about getting a bachelor's degree and then applying to Hartford.

"I am a Muslim, I take Islam seriously, and I know that there's a need for Muslim chaplains in the military," said El-Saddiq, who is now in Saudi Arabia making hajj. "I said, "Why am I serving in the military and not serving in that capacity, where I can help members of my faith and serve in the military too?' "

Muslims say they face special challenges in the military, not only because of their particular dietary regulations and their requirement for frequent prayer, but also because they are unfamiliar to many in military leadership.

Muslim chaplains must be trained not only in the basics of Islam _ how to conduct a worship service, how to perform marriages and burials _ but also in the basics of chaplaincy. The chaplaincy involves a large amount of one-on-one counseling for troops with spiritual concerns, family problems and other issues.

The chaplains must be prepared to meet the spiritual needs of everyone, not just of those who share their religion. In war or in peacetime, there may be only one chaplain assigned to a group of service members.

The Pentagon prefers that chaplains have a master's degree in divinity or an equivalent degree; Christian and Jewish chaplains are generally ordained or certified by accredited seminaries. There are no accredited Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu seminaries in the United States.

"The military's concerns are academic: They want all chaplains to come in meeting professional academic qualifications, and they want the individuals to be able to provide pastoral care for all service members, so that if you're a Jewish soldier and I'm a Muslim chaplain I need to be able at least to find a synagogue for you," said Qaseem A. Uqdah.

Uqdah is a former Marine who advocates for Muslim service members and who recruits potential Muslim chaplains as the executive director of the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council. "I look at the Christian and Jewish chaplains, and I want our chaplains to be on the same professional footing."

Although all imams are male, Uqdah said he is considering the possibility of selecting female Muslim chaplains. The military has had female Protestant and Jewish chaplains, but only male Roman Catholic and Muslim chaplains; Catholics and Muslims do not have female clergy.

The Muslim population in the military is growing rapidly, partly because of an increase in troops whose families immigrated to the United States from the Middle East and South Asia, but mostly because of conversions, especially of African-Americans. Uqdah said that 1,600 American soldiers converted to Islam in the Gulf War, after being exposed to Islam in Saudi Arabia.

Currently, there is one chaplain for every 414 Muslims in the military, compared with one chaplain for every 251 Protestants. And Muslims are even more underserved if one believes the estimates of Muslim organizations that there are twice as many Muslims in the military as are listed on Department of Defense tallies.

(Roman Catholics are the most underserved major religious group in the military, but that is because the Catholic Church is facing a shortage of priests and doesn't have enough to supply more military chaplains.)

Hartford Seminary has turned out to be a good fit, because it has had a longstanding interest in Islam. It hired a professor to teach Arabic in 1892, and it now has two Muslims on the faculty.

"This is a joint venture on the part of two faiths that have spent much of history killing each other," said the Hartford Seminary dean, Worth Loomis. "We're very excited that Hartford Seminary has this opportunity to assist in the training of Muslim chaplains, not only in the military but also in prisons, hospitals and mosques."

The program's lead faculty member, Ingrid Mattson, said that as a Muslim, she is particularly pleased with the new program.

"I am really concerned about putting our scholarship to the benefit of the community," she said. "This program should make it easier for the ordinary Muslim who is involved with aspects of American society to live as a Muslim, and in that way it can really have a great effect on the Muslim community as a whole."