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Muslim prayers welcome at Pentagon chapel

By Tom Cohen, CNN
  • The Pentagon military chapel near the 9/11 crash site is nondenominational
  • Officials say tolerance is part of the military culture
  • Chapel hosts Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu services

Washington (CNN) -- Less than 100 feet from where a hijacked airplane slammed into the Pentagon, Muslim military personnel bring prayer rugs on weekday afternoons for group worship.

On Fridays, a local imam conducts a service in the Pentagon Memorial Chapel, built after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks by al Qaeda that killed 184 people at the U.S. military headquarters.

The chapel, with stained-glass windows, burgundy carpeting and a wooden alter, provides a place of prayer and religious observation for anyone regardless of faith or culture.

Its welcoming calm and non-denominational culture are in stark contrast to the emotional debate over plans to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque two blocks from "ground zero" in New York City, where planes flown by al Qaeda hijackers destroyed the World Trade Center, killing more than 2,700 people.

Opponents of the New York plan, led by conservative Republicans and pundits and some relatives of people killed in the attack, say the presence of such a Muslim facility so near ground zero would amount to an insult to the victims. While most acknowledge Muslims' right to build a house of prayer there, they say doing so would cause unnecessary pain.

In response, President Barack Obama and most Democrats say that as long as the project receives the necessary local permits and approvals, developers have the constitutional right of religious freedom to build it. Some people who lost family members in the 9/11 attack also support the community center.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, noted last week that Muslims pray at the Pentagon -- also a target of the September 11 attackers.

To chaplains who work in Army chapels around the world, tolerance and openness to all faiths represents the support and camaraderie of military culture.

"What happens here is normal," said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Carleton W. Birch, spokesman for the Army chief of chaplains.

The Pentagon chapel opened in November 2002 as part of the reconstruction of the complex after damage caused by the 9/11 attack.

Behind the altar, a large stained-glass display depicts the Pentagon, an eagle and the American flag, with a double row of 184 ruby-red glass pieces representing the victims killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building.

"United in memory, September 11, 2001," it reads.

The chapel contains 80 seats and has regularly scheduled religious services on weekdays, including Catholic confession and Mass, a Jewish service and Torah study, a Hindu service, a Mormon service and services for other Christian denominations, along with the Muslim prayer service.

On average, 300 to 400 people visit the chapel each week, either to take part in group services or on their own. Army officials interviewed Wednesday said they were unaware of anyone ever protesting against Muslims using the chapel.

"I've never had a question about it" in four-plus years at the Pentagon, Army spokesman George Wright said.

The Army culture of religious freedom dates back to the Revolutionary War, said Wright, describing it as "a big tent."

"We're very tolerant here of one another and our faith," he said. "We don't keep track of who comes in."

CNN's Chris Lawrence contributed to this story.