Tuesday, February 14, 2006

An evangelical chaplain serving in Iraq has been forbidden to preach at chapel services after his comments about military intolerance toward certain Christian expressions got him into hot water with the Army.

Capt. Jonathan Stertzbach, a field artillery chaplain with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in Iraq, was silenced soon after his comments appeared in a Jan. 23 article in The Washington Times.

The chaplain criticized one of his supervisors, Lt. Col. Phillip Wright of Fort Drum in New York, by name and gave details about how chaplains of all faiths were being pressured to offer up only nonsectarian prayers.

Contacted in Iraq yesterday by The Times, Capt. Stertzbach confirmed he had been silenced.

“I am not allowed to talk to anyone right now,” he said. “There are no hard feelings, and I have to leave it at that.”

His silencing elicited a strong protest letter from Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, to Army Inspector General Lt. Gen. Stanley Green, demanding an investigation into whether Capt. Stertzbach was “illegally removed” from preaching duties.

“I am concerned Chaplain Stertzbach was removed without justification,” the congressman said in a Feb. 6 letter.

Based on numerous letters and reports he had received, Mr. Jones said, “suppression of religious freedom throughout our armed forces is a pervasive problem, affecting military chaplains from all denominations and religions.”

The lawmaker has gathered 74 signatures from members of Congress asking President Bush for an executive order allowing chaplains to pray as they wish. Even though the Air Force released new regulations last week giving its chaplains more leeway in talking about their faith, Mr. Jones had only faint praise for the changes.

“More progress can be made in assuring that Christian military chaplains can pray in the name of Jesus Christ and [that] all military chaplains can pray according to their faith,” he said.

The letter to the Army, according to a Feb. 7 press release from his office, is part of Mr. Jones’ efforts toward protecting First Amendment rights of military chaplains.

An Army spokeswoman said yesterday that Capt. Stertzbach remains a chaplain, but she could not confirm whether his right to preach had been taken away.

Capt. Stertzbach had been endorsed as a chaplain by the Greenville, S.C.-based International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers.

Although its director, the Rev. Billy Baugham, could not be reached yesterday, he told Baptist Press last week that Capt. Stertzbach’s silencing is “a disgrace.”

In the interview in The Times that provoked the Army’s wrath, Capt. Stertzbach cited a Dec. 17 memorial service for a soldier at which he was asked to pray.

When he told one chaplain he intended to pray in the name of Jesus Christ, he was stricken from the service program. A senior officer had to intervene to allow Capt. Stertzbach a time in the service to pray as he wished.

Even that prayer had to be prefaced with “in Thy name we pray” before the chaplain could add, “And in Jesus’ name, I pray.”

In that interview, Capt. Stertzbach also noted that many chaplains in Iraq felt confused by mixed signals given by supervisors.

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