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U.S. troops turn to faith amid realities of war

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  • The U.S. military has followers of all the major faiths serving in Iraq
  • This December, all three faiths observe major holidays
  • Troops are turning to their faiths to cope with killing in Iraq
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By Alphonso Van Marsh
CNN
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- In the waning sunlight hour of a chilly winter afternoon, a chorus of Hebrew prayer rises from a small, fluorescent lit room on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Chaplain Andrew Shulman leads a Jewish service in Iraq.

Friday sunset marks Sabbath, or Shabbat, for observant Jews at U.S. Army Camp Striker, Iraq.

Leading the Shabbat service is Chaplain Andrew Shulman, one of just three ordained American rabbis serving hundreds of Jewish-American troops stationed throughout Iraq.

"Being deployed away from home brings people to the chapel," says Shulman. "You don't have a lot else going on a Friday night here. Back at home, you are competing with the movies and the long weekends and everything. Here, people are really looking forward to breaking up the monotony of the week."

U.S. Army officials estimate that fewer than 1 percent of the some 16,000 service members in Shulman's 3rd Infantry Division identify themselves as Jewish. But the chaplain often travels by Black Hawk helicopter to perform Jewish rites for troops who request them anywhere in the country that was once home to ancient Babylon.

"Hanukkah was a really busy time around here," Shulman says. "Babylon had a very special place in Jewish history. This is where we were exiled 2,400-2,500 years ago. To come back and have the Hebrew language wafting through the halls of the chapel, it is special." Video Watch Shulman lead a Jewish service »

The U.S. military has followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam serving in Iraq. This December, all three faiths observe major holidays within weeks of each other. For some troops, it is not just difficult celebrating these holidays away from home. They are also turning to their faiths that espouse peace to cope with the reality of the war in Iraq.

Muslim-American Army Spc. Lamia Lahlou was born in Morocco and was living in New York in 2001. On September 11, Lahlou's best friend was in one of the trains below the World Trade Center and was killed.

"I needed to do something [in response to the attacks]," Lahlou says. She eventually enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Lahlou is approaching eight months serving in Iraq, monitoring Arab media with a classified unit linked to U.S. military intelligence. "My parents, it is hard for them to understand. Not a lot of people understand, especially Arabs or Muslims. [They ask,] 'How can you be a Muslim and you are fighting for America?'" she says.

The Muslim soldier says she has no problem reconciling her religion of peace, with fighting so-called Muslim jihadists. "I love America, so I fight for it -- that's my jihad," she says.

At nearby U.S. Army Camp Liberty, Chaplain Felix Kumai says he counsels Christian soldiers who see complications with biblical commandments like "Thou shalt not kill," as they serve God and country.

"It is a really sensitive and difficult question," Kumai, a Roman Catholic priest, says.

It is a question that gets more complicated in the face of accusations that the invasion of Iraq is a mission led by a conservative Christian commander-in-chief.

"I've had soldiers who have come up [to me] with those issues. In terms of their faith and then, what pertains to reality out here," Kumai says. "I tell them, 'Morally, we can not leave this place without stabilizing it.'"

Before the Shabbat service, Jewish-American Army Spc. Thomas Forsyth says he thinks God is looking out for him in Iraq. The 30-year old says his faith helps justify his actions in the war zone: "As a Jew, even on Sabbath, what we do is defensive."

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Shulman says the Jewish troops he counsels have a similar mind set. "These are highly professional volunteer soldiers, who knew what they were getting into," Shulman says. "On the Jewish side of things, there is such a thing as a justifiable war."

Not everyone may agree. But in the midst of combat, American soldiers -- Jewish, Christian and Muslim alike -- say their faith will help them see their deployment through. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Iraq WarIraqJudaismChristianityIslamTerrorismBaghdadSeptember 11 Attacks

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