Taking faith to the 'new' front lines

In all the hot spots - yet rarely mentioned - military chaplains aresome of today's unsung heroes.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They are there for the young recruits looking to the military as thier chance to make something of themselves. They are there for the soldier separated from loved ones to serve in Somalia, Haiti, or the mountains of Bosnia and confused as to who are the good guys or the bad guys.

And military chaplains are there for the troops struggling with the aftermath of terrorist bombs in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Or for those coping with the suicide of a friend in the barracks at home. For those tormented by what they saw in the cleanup of the Lockerbie and Swissair disasters. For those preparing to fly risky missions over Yugoslavia or take up posts in volatile Kosovo.

They're in the middle of all the "hot spots," but you rarely hear them mentioned. Military chaplains - whatever their nationality - are some of the unsung heroes of today's armed forces.

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And while they may not often hunker down on the front lines of war, they are pastoring under more complicated, demanding, and dangerous circumstances as the role of the military has changed and their nations participate in a host of peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, often in the wake of civil conflicts.

Some 40 countries, for instance, have supplied troops in Bosnia to restore stability and help refugees return home. From Dutch soldiers devastated by their inability to protect the people of Srebrenica to troops confused by the intense nationalist/sectarian differences, they turn to chaplains for solace and guidance.

"When the soldier in Bosnia can't come to conclusions," says Maj. Gen. Alfred Stipanits, Austria's chief of Protestant chaplains, the task is to help him understand that "God is the comrade right with you amid the uncertainty."

"In the worst of times, we discover there are prayers within us," says Capt. Arnold Resnicoff, command chaplain of the United States European Command. Whether or not soldiers are religious, whether "prayers have been deeply buried by pain, oppression, war, or fear," he says, "one of our jobs is to touch those prayers."

Working in multinational, multilingual, and multireligious environments - at home and abroad - chaplains are called on to practice new levels of cooperation and serve as models of religious tolerance.

And as the military's peacekeeping roles thrust it between former combatants clinging to the injustices of history, it must also concern itself with reconciliation. Chaplains are challenged to show that religion can be a force for peace as well as a factor in war.

Later this month, more than 90 top chaplains from 33 countries met outside Vienna to consider the challenges they face and the potential for greater cooperation. Discussion at the Military Chief of Chaplains Conference ranged from how to prepare lay people to help in pastoral care, to teaching ethics across faiths and to those with no faith, to the creation of a NATO Chaplains Council.

The role of chaplains at the strategic level of military planning is "the greatest area of growth" in their responsibilities, says Adm. Charles Abbot, deputy commander in chief of the US European Com-mand. "The way the world has evolved," he adds, it has become crucial "to better understand the religious and cultural histories of peoples involved in conflicts."

Chaplains for NATO

In the past, chaplains have had no role in NATO deliberations, but simply served with their nation's troops during exercises. The first NATO chaplain post was created on the SFOR (stabilization force) staff in Bosnia. Chaplain Col. Richard Johnson of the US Air Force advises the commander and staff and interfaces with local religious communities and chaplains of the various national forces. Some 50 military chaplains and lay helpers are at work in Bosnia, he says. He would like to do more to document what he calls "a great story of religious cooperation."

Now there is the prospect of the new NATO council. It was agreed in Vienna that a committee would develop a proposed charter for consideration by all 16 NATO countries (rising to 19 in October).

"The council could be a very important body," says Chaplain Resnicoff, "advising commanders on religious sensitivity issues, working with Partnership for Peace nations [of the former Eastern bloc] struggling with the idea of democracy and human rights, helping each other understand how we can work together in our multinational operations."

Resnicoff says that along with the Bosnia experience, some of the inspiration for the idea came during his visit to a multinational chaplains group in Africa, which is tied to the 14-nation Southern African Development Community.

Maj. Gen. F.F. Gqiba, chaplain general for South Africa's National Defense Force, who formed the "religious desk" of the African National Congress during its years in exile, shared "the miracle" of the opening up of the NDF in 1994 to the "first human right - religious freedom." The development of the Southern African Military Chaplains Association followed. It promotes religion as a human right within the armed forces of the region.

The ANC was "born in the womb of Christianity," General Gqiba, an Anglican clergyman, says in an interview. "And throughout the struggle, religion was central." Since taking on the daunting challenge of helping transform the NDF, he has brought in chaplains from many religions, including the first Hindu.

The chaplains conference, held here in a famous spa town in wintry Austria, is sponsored by the US European Command and the host country's military. Now in its 10th year, the gathering includes representatives from NATO nations, central and eastern Europe, and, for the first time, South Africa and the Republic of Korea. Fostering cooperation across military services and among faiths within a given service, the conference is "on the frontier of ecumenism," says Monsignor Franco Troi of Italy. "We share the same problems, and we learn to substitute for one another."

"It's helped us understand one another's faiths and cultural standpoints," which has helped in peacekeeping operations, says the Rev. Claus Harms, chief chaplain of the Royal Danish Navy. Tiny Denmark has joined in missions in Gaza, Cyprus, Namibia, the Gulf war, Congo, former Yugoslavia, and Macedonia.

It gives support to those seeking to develop new chaplaincies. The Chaplain Corps of the Czech Republic is perhaps the world's newest, and Chief of Chaplains Tomas Holub got his start with a tour in Bosnia. He found it "very important to be able to share and pray with other chaplains." In an army still largely atheistic, says the Rev. Jaromir Dus, adviser to the Czech Ministry of Defense, a survey showed Lieutenant Holub had won the appreciation of Czech soldiers in Bosnia, who learned a minister was not like the "Red" political officer who sought to indoctrinate, but a friend who could help them and also keep confidences.

Ministers and priests in communist nations were often jailed. For today's chaplains from Slovakia, Poland, Romania, and Germany, encouraging hope and a more transcendent set of values is a priority under situations that often remain dire. Economic conditions are worse for many in their countries, they say, and there is disillusionment with capitalism and with some consequences of freedom.

When communism collapsed in the East, says Monsignor Walter Theis, Roman Catholic chaplain from Germany, the values of the West spread rapidly, bringing "more freedom but also a sophisticated, superficial" sense of values. For many, it "destroyed values more vigorously than communism had," he says. Some 67 percent of east Germans and 31 percent of west Germans call themselves atheists, he adds. In the Army, united since 1990, chaplains are in charge of "life counseling" on ethical issues for daily living, what he calls "sort of a preparatory course to a new attitude to life."

Teaching ethics across faiths

How to teach ethics and values across faiths and to those with no faith is a prime concern for chaplains. "The chaplain brings not just his or her tradition's answers to questions, but more importantly, the experience of process - of struggling with issues of right and wrong," says Resnicoff. "Chaplains get involved in morals, ethics, and values because someone should be able to come to us and ask, 'How can I carry a weapon? How much bad can you do in the name of good?' These are questions that face us always in the military." And chaplains must serve people of many faiths, helping them find answers within their own tradition.

Some are now concerned about the rise of movements in Europe, including political parties, supporting various forms of intolerance and taking advantage of the economic doldrums. "How should chaplains combat these feelings?" Rabbi Albert Guigui of Belgium asks. "What should we do in the barracks so that our young people learn to love rather than hate those with a different race or religion?"

Robert Seiple, the US State Department's special representative for international religious freedom, who spoke at the conference, said that under difficult circumstances there is a tendency to scapegoat. "We should never assume that tolerance has been learned," he said. Two things tend to promote religious tolerance, he added. "People need to know their own faith at its core, in its richness - all faiths have some form of the golden rule. And they should know enough about their neighbors' [faiths] to respect them."

Today's military is putting great store on understanding different cultures and religions and other peoples' histories.

Maj. Gen. Charles Wax, US Air Force, director of plans and policy directorate at the US European Command, says, "We can no longer only pursue our military and operational plans centered on nations or national borders.... There are only 190 nations in the world, but there are 5,000 recognized ethnic groups." And those ethnic groups may well be defined in part by religious heritage, he says.

US engagement strategy

The new US National Security Strategy emphasizes not only preparedness, but "engagement." "Engagement means we're involved proactively with other nations so that we shape the environment to prevent war," Resnicoff says. "It's like the fire department, which doesn't just fight fires. It tries to change the way we build buildings and educates on how to prevent fires."

This means the US European Command (which actually deals with an area encompassing 89 countries in Europe, Africa, and part of the Middle East) is working with other militaries and with civilian groups under many situations. The chaplain is becoming recognized as the "natural bridge" to many of these parties.

In engagement with militaries of Eastern European nations, many still struggling with democracy, chaplains advocate values of fundamental human dignity and "religion as a basic human right." Some are wary of chaplains because of bad experience with missionaries, Resnicoff says. We explain we're not promoting a religion, but freedom of religion, and our approach is that "those in the military who fight and sacrifice for freedom should be allowed to enjoy those freedoms."

In situations such as Bosnia, where "shaping the environment" is crucial to peace and to allowing foreign troops to go home, Resnicoff is involved with nongovernmental groups in helping advise local leaders on steps toward reconciliation. Involving chaplains in such a group "wouldn't have happened even a year ago," he says, but many are seeing "the role of the chaplain can be much more than it has been in the past." He is now hoping to train some chaplains in reconciliation skills.

"The world is changing, the military is changing, the mandate of civilian organizations is changing," Resnicoff says. The chaplain can bring to the table wisdom about "the struggle of trying to understand how you do your best to live up to values in an imperfect world."

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