Christmas Controversy in the US Military: A Bible Cake and a Muslim Ordered to Don a Santa Suit

’Tis the season … for fights over Christmas.  President Donald Trump has made a rhetorical flourish of promising to make it “safe” for Americans to say “Merry Christmas” to people of any creed, and the next five weeks, of course, will put that to the test.

The U.S. military is already grappling with a seasonal uptick in complaints about unconstitutional Christian iconography and symbols popping up at bases—especially in Muslim countries.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, service members, families and friends at Al Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar, host to the U.S. Central Command and the 379th Expeditionary Wing of the USAF, were treated to a Bible-shaped cake inscribed with verses from two Psalms. An Air Force public affairs officer posted a picture of the cake on the USAF public media platform.

Before the end of the holiday weekend, service members at Al Udeid and elsewhere had complained to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, dedicated to maintaining the neutrality of the U.S. military when it comes to religion. Pictures of the cake disappeared from the media site Tuesday morning.

The cake, baked and decorated in the shape of an open Bible, was inscribed with misspelled verses from Psalm 30:14 and Psalm 100:4-5. “Offer unto God thanksgiving and pay thy vows unto the most high” and “Let us come before it is [sic] presence with thanksgiving"; “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever and his faithfulness contenues [sic] though [sic] all generation [sic].”

Coalition partners—many of them Muslim—in the predominantly Muslim country of Qatar were present at the Biblical cake display. Al Udeid is a staging ground for fighter-bombers aimed at the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, at another large Air Force base in another Muslim nation, a commander ordered a Muslim recruit and non-citizen, who had joined the military on the promise of citizenship,to don a Santa Claus costume at what he was calling the base Christmas Party. The recruit, who asked not to be named, complained to the MRFF, which brought the matter to the base leadership. Shortly thereafter, the order to wear the suit was rescinded, and the “Christmas Party” renamed “Holiday Party.”

In an email to the MRFF, the recruit (whose command of English is poor) wrote that he was uncomfortable but afraid to object, and that his parents were upset as well. “Our Commander then say he had found a Santa Claus costume for the celebration and want me to put on the Santa Claus clothes. To show that our 'Christmas Party' was not just for the Christians. I was shocked and hurt. I was embarrass. Humiliated. Now everyone know I am Muslim. Everyone know we are deployed to [country name withheld]. Which is a Muslim country. I did not want to be force to play Santa Claus.  I call my parents and they were afraid for me to say no to [name and rank of Commander withheld]. But they were angry and also confuse.”

The military has a long history of skirmishes with fundamentalist and evangelical Christians inside the service proselytizing other members, both Christian and non-Christian. The Defense Department has also had to deal with violations of military rules about the separation of church and state, such as giving Iraqi and Afghan soldiers fighting with or on the side of the U.S. rifles with Biblical verses engraved in code on their sights.

In an interview with Newsweek, MRFF founder and president Mikey Weinstein, a retired Air Force officer, said complaints about fundamentalist Christian proselytizing have been rising since Trump was elected. “We are used to this around this season, we usually have one client call an hour, now it’s two an hour. This is a war by Christians to promote Christmas and it is not even on Christmas. You don't go to a dining facility where there are people of all faiths and creeds and put misspelled Bible verses on the central thing, this cake. And, this is Christian blackface, to force a Muslim to dress as Santa Claus.”

Public affairs officers at Al Udeid and the other Air Force base did not respond to Newsweek requests for comment.

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