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At Pentagon, a lesson in tolerance N.Y. mosque debate should heed

While the debate continues to brew around the mosque being built near Ground Zero in New York City, Muslims have been worshiping at another Sept. 11, 2001, crash site in Washington, D.C..

The only thing they've heard recently is an inquiry from a couple Buddhists about starting services there, an official told me.

In the heart of the U.S. military machine, in a place where generals stomp around like demigods and the hallways bristle with combat-ready warriors, religious tolerance is part of what it means to be American.

"We are sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. And freedom of religion is part of that Constitution," said George Wright, who is an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. Until this week, when reporters like me flooded him with calls about the proximity of Muslim worship to the site of a terrorist attack, there has been no interest or controversy surrounding it.

The people I spoke with at the Pentagon said they were surprised at the furor over plans to build a mosque and Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York.

It's true that the chapel in the Pentagon isn't a mosque; it's designed for use by many faiths. Each week, it hosts a Catholic Mass, Protestant, Episcopal and Hindu services, a Church of Latter-day Saints Bible study, and a Jewish service and Torah study in addition to the Muslim prayers and service.

But it's worth looking at because had the establishment of Muslim services on hallowed ground in the Pentagon been framed with the same demagoguing, throat-clutching rhetoric that the debate in New York is being presented, seething fear could easily have run amok.

It didn't. And that says something about Americans at their best.

Too bad our better angels aren't on display in the New York mosque uproar. For years, no one complained about the two mosques that operate several blocks from Ground Zero or the propriety of a strip club and off-track betting parlor so close to the hallowed ground where almost 3,000 people died. Have any of the folks complaining so vociferously been to that part of New York? One block away, in the land of nasty little food stands, there is little that is sacred.

In the Pentagon on Thursday, we walked past a CVS, a florist, a jeweler and a handbag store on our way to the chapel. It's a little city in there, and as Pentagon citizens do their errands, about 300 to 400 of them duck into that chapel each week for whatever worship suits them.

As we were talking about the 3,500 Muslim service members, one of the chaplains told me that there are plenty of U.S. military facilities across the globe that have spaces dedicated to Muslim services, not just interfaith chapels. "On bases in Iraq and so forth, we have mosques," he said. "No one has ever raised any concern about that."

And here's my question: Why should anyone?

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