At Pentagon 9/11 site, Muslims pray without objection
WASHINGTON -- Inside the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial Chapel, a female Air Force sergeant unlaced her combat boots, set them under the pews and slipped her black veil around her hair and over her camouflaged uniform.
The men pushed back the altar for Christian services to make room for their large green prayer rugs; then they moved the podium from one side of the room to the other so that the congregation would be facing Mecca.
"Allah akhbar," called out Ali Mohammed, a contractor who works at the Pentagon, raising his hands to his face as he chanted the call to prayer. While politicians and others across the country in an election year debate the propriety of building a Muslim center, including a mosque, two blocks from the former World Trade Center site in New York, there's no sign of such debate at the Pentagon.
Instead, about 400 worshipers, including Muslims, attend prayer services every week in the chapel, a non-denominational facility built over the rubble left behind when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon.
Opponents of the New York mosque say it would be disrespectful of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, to allow Muslims to pray near the World Trade Center site.
That's never been an issue at the Pentagon, where 125 people who worked there died that day. Muslims have been praying at the Pentagon's chapel since 2002, gathering every day at 2 p.m. around the time of the second of five prayers Muslims are supposed to offer daily.
In the chapel, it's impossible not to think of the terrorist attack. A memorial leading to it lists the names of the victims. Light streaming through a stained-glass memorial illuminates the congregation. The memorial reads, "United in memory, September 11, 2001." A poster of a flag with the names of all those killed on Sept. 11 hangs on the wall on the other side of the room. The chapel's windows look out over a much larger Sept. 11 memorial outside.
Worshipers trickle in, placing their Pentagon badges in their shirt pockets as they walk toward the front, open the palms of their hands and begin to pray.
According to Army statistics, of the more than 1 million serving in the Army, there are 1,977 active-duty Muslims, 603 Muslim reservists and 464 National Guardsmen who are Muslim. Six Muslim chaplains serve them.
To provide an imam on Friday, Islam's holy day, the Army Chaplain's office contracts an imam to speak to worshipers. On Friday, it was Imam Ghayth Nur Kashif, leading 17 worshipers during the 40-minute service.
"We are challenged to do the best we can during Ramadan," Kashif told the congregation, referring to criticism of the proposed New York Islamic center. "It's not pleasant, but listen to some of the complaints."
The chapel, which was dedicated in November 2002, allots time for nine faiths to worship, including Muslims, Jews, Christians and Hindus.