AS American communities and businesses rally to send everything from cookies to disposable cameras to US servicemen and women in the Gulf, the question about whether or not family and friends can send religious materials to their loved ones in Saudi Arabia lingers. Americans are righteously indignant to have religious materials mailed to the troops sent back in shredded pieces. Or to hear that troops aren't allowed to practice their faith in a country they are defending. However, while it remains true that the Saudi government officially prohibits non-Islamic religious activity within Saudi borders, a closer looks reveals an encouraging level of religious activity on the frontlines - where US troops are concerned. According to Pentagon chaplains, the Saudis are more concerned about proselytism of other Saudis than about the religious practices of American troops at outposts in the desert. Chaplains report they are as vigorous as ever in meeting the religious needs of troops of all faiths in their care.
It is also true that chaplains are officially called ``morale officers'' permitted to hold ``fellowship meetings'' instead of mass or church services. But chaplains continue to wear crosses on duty except when they go into Saudi communities (a velcro attachment makes a quick removal easy). In fact, they are barely able to keep up with the growth of church services and Bible study groups springing up in unit after unit. Chaplain David P. Peterson, who oversees the activities of all 400 chaplains on duty in the Gulf, stated recently in World magazine, ``There is a spiritual hunger among our people like I have never seen before.''
While there have been distasteful instances of the Saudis confiscating religious material mailed to troops or simply sending it back to the States in pieces, religious materials are being safely sent to chaplains for ministry to the troops via military channels. The Pentagon has approved the private donation of hundreds of thousands of New Testaments and Bibles and has ensured that chaplains in the Gulf receive these needed materials swiftly, and with little red tape. For instance, Columbus, Ohio-based Bible Literature International (BLI) and the International Bible Society in Colorado Springs, have donated 100,000 pocket-sized camouflage-covered New Testaments upon the request of the chiefs of chaplains' offices of each service branch.
These and other similar efforts are meeting a need. The demand for religious material was made graphically plain to BLI in a letter received from an Army sergeant: ``Because of lectures by leaders and other personnel stateside, most soldiers did not deploy with religious material for fear it would be confiscated when they arrived in the Mideast. Now there is an overwhelming demand for Bibles and other religious printed material.''
Key chaplains aiding in the distribution of religious materials relay that chaplains in Saudi Arabia are kept ``very busy'' answering the tough questions of servicepersons facing tomorrow's uncertainty with a renewed interest in their faith. One Ohio church whose pastor is now a chaplain stationed in the Gulf relays that he is working 18-hour days as he holds four church services a week, several Bible studies, and constant counseling sessions with Army personnel dealing with depression, uncertainty about the future and fear of Iraqi chemical weapons. His congregation responded to his request for study Bibles (sent individually to allay Saudi fears of evangelism) to help him meet the growing spiritual hunger among troops serving in his units.
Today as broadcasts from the Gulf seem to grow more disheartening, news on the spiritual front is the most hopeful headline around. Albeit quietly, US chaplains are the ``unsung heroes'' continuing to minister effectively to the spiritual needs of the troops in spite of bothersome restrictions. Even as we pray for a nonviolent resolution in the Persian Gulf, we would do well to remember the words found in Isaiah 52: ``How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace.''