Marine Reserve Staff Sgt. Gary Johnson, a born-again Christian, plans to bring a pocket Bible, devotional books and Gospel pamphlets to Saudi Arabia. But he will keep his religious convictions close to his chest during Operation Desert Shield.
Johnson, a fundamentalist Baptist accustomed to daily personal walks with the Lord, said he would abide by U.S. military guidelines that call for discreet religious behavior in a kingdom where all but Moslems are considered infidels.
"Tolerant is a good word to explain what I'm feeling," said Johnson, 26, of suburban Greenville, S.C., who was deployed last week to Camp Lejeune, N.C., to prepare for shipping out. "I can look to Christ for the strength to endure that discomfort and endure the situation."
Religious guidelines for troops in the Persian Gulf have stirred little public protest in the United States, other than from Jewish groups and fundamentalists. Many religious leaders nationwide generally have accepted guidelines that mandate low-key practice of religion at a time when two holidays, Hanukah and Christmas, are traditionally celebrated with public displays.
"We are the guests of the Saudi Arabian people, and we are accommodating some of their own faith requirements," said Army Col. Meredith R. Standley, a chaplain and executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board. "Our military personnel in the Persian Gulf have religious freedom to practice their faith, as they would normally practice it elsewhere."
Soldiers and chaplains in Saudi Arabia have been instructed to avoid open display of a crucifix or Star of David in public places outside of military units, even as jewelry. They also have been told to avoid distributing non-Moslem religious literature and criticizing Islam in any way.
Mass mailings of Christmas cards or religious items also are discouraged because they might be interpreted as evangelizing and lead to confiscation by Saudi customs officials, according to Standley and other military officials.
In some heavily populated areas of the gulf region, chaplains are called morale counselors, and worship services are dubbed morale meetings, although this does not apply in military encampments or aboard U.S. ships where chaplains circulate freely wearing religious insignia and carrying Bibles. In some places, soldiers are receiving ministry in smaller groups, officials said.
"They are now in a potential risk situation, and we don't want religion to be an added risk to them," said Lt. Col. Joseph Allred, an Army spokesman. "We've asked our chaplains and our soldiers to be very discreet in religious activities and worship, to use a great deal of common sense and not draw unnecessary attention to their activities that would place them in greater risk."
Reports of religious restrictions on U.S. troops have been greatly exaggerated, according to Maj. Douglas Hart, an Air National Guard officer and a spokesman for the Defense Department. Recent reports that worship services have been banned and that Jewish soldiers were forced to list their religion on their dog tags as nondenominational are false, Hart said.
Troops can receive religious material if sent specifically to them, Hart said, adding that military personnel are allowed to practice their faith routinely within U.S. military compounds.
"We have gotten letters from groups that said they didn't feel it was right that American soldiers were not allowed to worship," Hart said. "That is not the case."
In the U.S. military, 54.7 percent of the troops are Protestant, 26.19 percent are Roman Catholic and 0.37 percent are Jewish, Hart said. Other religious preferences account for 3.99 percent, while 14.69 percent have none and atheists make up 0.06 percent, he said.
Military officials said they do not want to advertise religious beliefs of U.S. troops and the Saudis have looked the other way to accommodate non-Moslem worship in much the same manner that they have accepted U.S. military women.
Air Force Maj. Linda Leong, a Central Command public affairs officer in Saudi Arabia, said she has received numerous Christmas cards addressed to "any service member." Leong, an Episcopalian, said she attends Protestant and Catholic worship services, which are called morale meetings, in her military compound.
"Only when the chaplains are located in heavily populated areas where they are in the company of host-nation personnel are there any restrictions," Leong said.
Leong said she and her roommates have a four-foot Christmas tree in the living quarters of their military compound, which resembles a guarded apartment complex. Christmas stockings and glittering holiday lights decorate walls and inside windows, she said.
The military's explanation for low-key religious behavior generally has allayed concerns of most religious leaders interviewed here recently.
The Rev. James Shaw, director of ministries for the armed forces of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, said he felt better after a briefing by military officials at an annual meeting recently in Arlington of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces. The organization represents about 200 groups, from Roman Catholic and Buddhist to black Baptist denominations.
"As we see it, they are getting every bit as good religious coverage and services as they would in the United States in their own units," Shaw said.
But some religious leaders remain disturbed by any attempt to limit freedom to practice religion.
"They need to be a little more understanding of our religious sensitivity," said Richard Land, executive director of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission. "We've heard a great deal about Saudi religious sensitivity, but Christians and Jews have religious sensitivities too."
"For the Saudis to be saying, 'You need to be covering up your crosses and your Stars of David,' we think there need to be some firmer negotiations with the Saudi government," he said.
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, said he too is uncomfortable with the guidelines. "These men and women are sent over there with a lot of fear and anxiety," he said. "For us to consider restricting their ability to find solace, support and faith . . . embarrasses me. It makes me sad."
Marine Cpl. Matthew Walker said he feels the same way. An insurance agent, he is one of eight reservists recently deployed from Bob Jones University, an independent religious university and center of fundamentalism in Greenville, S.C.
Walker, 20, said he began reciting the Scriptures when he first learned to read. He said he will watch what he says and where he prays when he is sent to Saudi Arabia later this month. But Walker said he also may be tempted to ask Saudis about the destiny of their souls.
"There comes a point in time when the things you believe are more important than what the government says," Walker said.