EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Her commanding officer had advised against it, first citing fire safety regulations, then Arab sensitivity.

In the tent she shares with seven other medics, the 22-year-old Jewish woman, who requested anonymity, planned to celebrate the first day of Hanukah Tuesday by lighting a candle on the small menorah sent by her mother in Baltimore.

"I'm not a troublemaker, and I don't want to offend Moslems or anyone else," said the Navy medic assigned to a mobile military hospital occupying a corner of a major Persian Gulf port. "It just seems wrong to me that Americans who have come to defend the Arabs should be asked to sacrifice our traditions and beliefs."

Saudi law strictly forbids the practice of any religion except Islam, and military regulations forbid open flames in tents. But stubborn faith won this round.

"I insisted I had a right to practice my faith no matter what Saudi law says," she said. "As a Jew, I've already got some ambivalence about serving here. OK, I'm in Saudi Arabia, and I am willing to do the job the Navy pays me to do. But I'm not going to deny my religion."

Except for classified operational information, no issue related to Operation Desert Shield is quite so touchy as religion.

For the vast majority of the more than 180,000 American military men and women serving in Saudi Arabia, at issue is the practice of Christianity. Jews comprise fewer than 1 percent of all armed forces members, or 7,700, and only a few hundred are believed to be in Saudi Arabia, an avowed enemy of Israel and a nation that normally refuses entry to Jews of any nationality.

Most official military spokesmen refuse to discuss religion. "Sorry, but that's off-limits," said a high-ranking press liaison officer when asked to describe military policy on religious services for troops serving in Saudi Arabia.

It is not even clear whether there is a policy. Rumors and confusion abound on the subject. Some officers say the Pentagon has barred the open practice of religion; others insist there is no such order, only a general advisory that Saudi "sensitivities" be respected.

It is uncertain whether any Jewish military chaplains have been assigned to units in Saudi Arabia. Christian chaplains say they are unaware of any here, but stressed that every military chaplain is obliged to minister to all faiths.

In arguing her case to celebrate Hanukah, the Jewish medic sought and received support from a Protestant chaplain. "He actually knew quite a bit about Judaism," she said.

Jewish servicemen and women interviewed in recent days expressed their feelings reluctantly and declined to be quoted by name. They cited personal shyness, not military orders, as the reason for their reticence.

"I'm an American, not an Israeli, so I've got no attitude when it comes to serving here," said an Army lieutenant from Chicago. "The Arab officers I've met seem like decent people, and the subject of my Jewishness doesn't come up. If one asked, I'd tell him. If he didn't like it, I'd say hell with him."

An Army sergeant in a forward-based combat unit who described himself as "fairly" religious, said he had no particular plans to celebrate Hanukah. He said a Protestant chaplain had offered to provide him candles, "but I told him it was too damn windy. Anyway, in my family, Rosh Hashanah, Passover, were the real holy times. And I hope to observe them in some fashion."

The sergeant said he had read news reports that officers had instructed Jewish soldiers to change their dog tags to "nondenominational" before being deployed to Saudi Arabia to avoid giving offense to Arabs.

"It certainly never came up in my battalion, and my tags say exactly what I am: J for Jew," he said.

As for possibly putting his life on the line for Saudi Arabia, he said: "As a Jew, I've got some problems. As a soldier, I've got my orders. As a thinking individual, it is pretty clear to me that Iraq is a far, far more dangerous threat to Israel than the Saudis. So I guess I'd say, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. At least for this operation."

One factor in the U.S. military's official "say nothing" policy on religion is not so much Saudi attitudes toward "nonbelievers" as Iraqi propaganda.

Saudi Arabia, birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and site of Islam's two most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina, is regarded as a holy land throughout the Islamic world. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's oft-repeated charge that the Americans will "corrupt Islam" strikes a sympathetic note even among anti-Iraqi Arabs.

In any event, religious military men and women in Saudi Arabia find their situation somewhat akin to that of early Christians in Roman times. They practice their faiths almost covertly.

But worship they do, despite the nervousness of the U.S. command and occasional rumbles from conservative Islamic clerics, who are a politically potent force in Saudi society.

"We keep a low profile, yes, but we do minister to the religious needs of all faith groups," said Lt. Cmdr. Barby Earl Wilson, a Navy chaplain and ordained Protestant minister. "We conduct religious services, we provide religious counseling, we are meeting the religious needs of our men and women, Jews and Christians alike."

Wilson oversees religious affairs for Navy Fleet Hospital 5, a sprawling compound of tents and "containerized" operating rooms that is the largest American military medical facility in Saudi Arabia. For now, Wilson's "church" consists of a canvas canopy with folding chairs facing a makeshift altar draped with gold and crimson cloth.

"We are holding 30 worship services a week," Wilson said. "Our choir is a big draw, particularly for young people. We don't publicize these services. We are not supposed to put up printed announcements or prayer schedules. But neither do we make it any big secret. Word is passed by word of mouth.

"I don't know if the Saudis are aware of this," he said. "I don't ask."

During an interview, the ring of hammers and rip of a power saw reverberated from a small construction site in the hospital compound. A sign outside the unfinished structure read: "Chapel."

"That's a mistake," said Wilson with a frown. "We're supposed to just call it a building."

Similarly, said other chaplains, the military has enjoined them from using religious terms to describe worship services.

"We don't hold Mass, or Holy Communion, or even prayers," said a chaplain with a trace of resentment in his voice. "We are not even chaplains. We are 'morale officers' who are permitted to hold 'fellowship meetings.' Apparently, morale and fellowship is OK with the Saudis."

His resentment, he said, stemmed from "the official notion that Saudi 'sensitivity' is somehow more important than the fundamental American ideal that one has the right to practice his or her faith. I heartily agree that we should not proselytize or directly challenge Islam. We are soldiers, not missionaries. But this creeping around on religion gives me the creeps. It is flim-flam."

In any event, thinly disguised worship services and even shipments of Bibles to troops by the Gideon Society are apparently acceptable to mainstream Saudi officials, who have turned a blind eye to the practice of non-Islamic religion so long as it is confined to U.S. outposts and other military facilities.

"Americans have generously come to the defense of our kingdom so it would be ungenerous for us to interpret our law too narrowly during this crisis," said a Ministry of Information official.

But the fundamentalist clerics of Saudi Arabia's dominant Wahabist sect are less tolerant.

"The practice of foreign faiths on our sacred soil gives offense to Islam," said Safar Hawali, a prominent Moslem theologian whose taped sermons decrying the presence of American "infidels" are widely circulated.

Saudi Arabia has no constitution and no civil laws, as such. Rather, it is governed by sharia, or Islamic holy law, as interpreted by Moslem clerics and the royal family headed by King Fahd.

Ironically, perhaps, it is American military ministers such as Marine Corps Chaplain Stan Scott, a Protestant, who have taken the lead in trying to explain Islamic beliefs and customs to U.S. troops here.

"I try to explain Islam factually, but sympathetically," said Scott. "I talk a little about the history of Arabia, the beliefs of Moslems and the ways of Arab society. Mostly, I find the Marines pretty receptive to this. We are in this country, like it or not, we have to adapt to it, so we might as well try to understand it in the process."