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Guantanamo's Uneasy Ramadan

Tensions and religious teaching mix at prison, as a court challenge calls for Muslim chaplains.

September 26, 2006|Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez | Times Staff Writers

With the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, authorities at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp have stepped up efforts to teach guards about the religious observance, amid signs that radical strains of Islam are becoming a potent organizing tool at the facility.

The cellblocks, which now house 14 suspected Al Qaeda leaders as well as more than 400 other detainees, have been rocked by a riot and three suicides in recent months.

And many of the disturbances have involved allegations that guards are not sensitive to the religious practices of the detainees.

A court challenge filed late last week in U.S. District Court in Washington accused the U.S. of illegally denying detainees access to Muslim chaplains, who some religious leaders argue could help calm tensions inside the barbed wire. The motion was supported by one of the largest Muslim advocacy organizations in the country.

The military quietly stopped assigning Muslim chaplains to the base in Cuba more than two years ago, after one -- an Army captain -- was targeted in a controversial espionage investigation.

Interviews with military personnel, meanwhile, indicate bitterness is rising in the ranks over what many regard as overreaching religious sensitivity, including banning guards from touching any detainee's Koran during cell searches.

Chris Molnar, a California National Guard soldier who served as senior chaplain at Guantanamo until earlier this year, said managing religion in the politically treacherous and volatile environment at the camp is among the most challenging tasks facing military leaders.

"I saw the command structure struggling to deal with this ... respecting a person's religion, but not letting them use that as a hammer to beat us over the head," said Molnar, a Lutheran pastor in San Luis Obispo.

The prominence of religious issues at Guantanamo was underscored recently in a senior military official's article on the camp website and the front page of the base newspaper. The report expressed respect and appreciation for the significance of Ramadan and explained the military's plan to support the holy month rite of daytime fasting.

Staff would work "around the clock" to provide "Ramadan-specific" meals that include dates, nuts and honey, the official reported, adding that commanders have doubled nighttime portions and provided medical monitoring to ensure that detainees received adequate nutrients.

Navy Cmdr. Robert Durand, a base spokesman, said the presentations were primarily intended for guards.

"This is an extremely important religious event in the lives of these detainees," Durand said. "What we're basically trying to say, in educating the guard force, is, 'This is what we're doing and why we're doing it.' "

In the court challenge filed Friday in Washington on behalf of a Pakistani detainee, attorney Gaillard T. Hunt said Muslim chaplains would help reduce suicide attempts among detainees, a problem that has fueled calls in the U.S. and abroad to close the camp.

An official with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as well as two Muslim chaplains who work in the federal prison system, filed declarations in support of the motion. They, along with a third chaplain, said they were willing to counsel prisoners at Guantanamo.

"Counseling is what disarms them from the very hostile environment they are in. It's very useful in calming tensions," Shakeel Syed, one of the chaplains, said in an interview.

The motion was filed on behalf of Saifullah Paracha, 59, who is accused of being an Al Qaeda financier and taking part in a plan to smuggle weapons into the United States. Hunt said Paracha has never been charged with a crime and is "pro-American and anti-terrorist."

A Justice Department spokesman said Monday that officials would not comment on Hunt's chaplain motion because of ongoing litigation. Camp officials say they provide medical and counseling professionals to combat suicides among detainees.

The officials also say that there are not enough Muslim chaplains in the U.S. armed forces to assign to Guantanamo and that detainees would be suspicious of any religious personnel provided by the military. Currently, a civilian Muslim contractor advises camp commanders. He is not a chaplain, officials said, but is available to discuss religious issues with detainees.

Lt. Col. Lora Tucker, a camp spokeswoman, said even if a military chaplain were assigned to Guantanamo, "he would not be working with the detainees."

That was not the case in the past. Five military chaplains served continuously in the early years of the camp and counseled detainees on proper interpretations of Islam and suicide prevention.

The Defense Department initially publicized its use of Muslim chaplains to work with detainees and defuse tensions, including those arising from a 2002 hunger strike among suspected Al Qaeda leaders who were angered after guards disrupted a prayer rite.

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