WHAT MAY be the season's most bizarre Christmas card comes from Prince Bandar, the ambasssador of Saudi Arabia. On the outside there is a depiction of two crossed scimitars and a palm tree. Inside, in Arabic and English, is a description of the birth of Christ from the Koran.
It begins, "Behold, the angels said 'O Mary, God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from him; His name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary.' "
Very nice, you say, a Moslem, getting into the spirit of things, proving the tolerance of Islam, which acknowledges another religion.
Trouble is, though, that while in principle, Islam accepts Christianity -- and Judaism, too -- you better not try to practice either inside the Saudi borders.
And our American soldiers, who are waiting in the sand to defend Prince Bandar's country and who want to celebrate the central event on the Christian calender, are required to do so "discreetly." We mustn't upset the Saudis, you see, while we are saving them.
In a recent edition of The Boston Globe, Colin Nickerson reports that a 22-year-old Jewish medic was discouraged from observing Hanukah by lighting a candle. It wasn't a good idea, she was told, from the fire-protection point of view. Then Moslem "sensitivities" were cited.
Oh, come on. And what's this about service chaplains having to hide their crosses or Stars of David? And being called "morale officers?" Are the Saudis really all that sensitive? They hang, stone and behead lawbreakers, which Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist. suggests a certain hardness of spirit. They regard apostasy as a capital offense.
Does anyone think the Saudis, if they found out that Hanukah services were being held or mass being said out in the open, would call us in and expel us from their country? And start shopping around for some other nation to rescue them from the jaws of Saddam Hussein?
It is good, in a way, that we have taken so much time and trouble to learn Saudi ways and to honor them, right down to striking the Stars and Stripes at local request. It's the opposite of what we did in Vietnam, which was to ride roughshod over local customs and to know apparently as little as possible about the Vietnamese culture and economy.
North Vietnamese talk sadly about GIs who -- for sport -- shot water buffalo, the sole support of many peasant families, or destroyed centuries-old Buddhist temples because statues of Buddha with a reverse swastika medallion on his chest suggested Nazi sympathies.
Now we seem to have gone too far the other way. If Moslems have such hair-trigger religious sensitivity, we should tell them about our own religious sensitivity -- especially our super-sensitivity to freedom of worship, a pillar of our Constitution and our Republic.
Our poor servicemen and women are bearing the brunt of the involvement with these touchy people. They can't have beer, a deprivation that admittedly has a positive side: The authorities report a sharp decline in accidents and fights since mandatory temperance went into effect. They can't have a traditional Bob Hope show or troupes with dancers in them. Even the quieter consolations of religion seem to be questioned. No one else has been asked to sacrifice much of anything. Nor has anyone yet given an entirely satisfactory answer to the question of why our troops are there, either. They know they will not be fighting for democratic values. Saudi Arabia is a feudal monarchy and Kuwait, which George Bush has vowed to liberate, is an emirate and no better. They have to settle on possibly fighting, and possibly dying, to deter aggression -- while understanding they might not be doing it if it weren't for oil.
The subject of who is on our side in this confrontation does not bear close examination. Syria, a conspicuous Arab ally, is a terrorist nation that is widely suspected of blowing up 241 Marines in Lebanon. George Bush recently received a Chinese official at the White House because the Beijing government, which has begun a new crackdown on dissidents, voted for our war resolution in the United Nations.
Nobody wants to say that petroleum is the reason that hundreds of thousands of Americans will spend Christmas far from families, far from children. Let us hope, by the way, for a more humane policy regarding babies who have both parents in uniform and in the desert. We see soldier-couples turning over infants to grandparents. Is it a function of feminism that the woman insists on absolute equality of treatment? But if she can't stay home, shouldn't he? America has enough problems with parentless children.
Nobody at home has been asked to give up anything, not so much as a teaspoon of gas for their cars. The word "conservation" is never heard. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is pushing hard for a federal subsidy of alternate fuels, but people are still asking if he should. We would rather fight than switch on oil.