CAMP KOREAN VILLAGE, Iraq --
In a concerted effort to solidify relations with local community leadership and broaden U.S. service members’ knowledge about Iraqi culture, the reserve Marines and sailors of 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5 hosted key leaders from the town of Rutbah to participate in a base religious service here Nov. 16.
Rutbah, with a population of about 20,000, is the largest population center in the unit’s area of operations and is located about 20 miles from here.
The most distinguished member of the Iraqi entourage was a gray-bearded imam, Mahmoud Ahmed Nudin Obid. Not only was this Obid’s first visit to a U.S. military installation, but it was also the first time any Muslim religious leader has come to Camp Korean Village since the Marines began using it as an operating base in 2004.
As imam of Rutbah, Obid is an influential religious leader who also sometimes serves as an arbiter or judge to help resolve disputes between people and families. Obid is also active on the Rutbah city council.
Only minutes after their arrival, Obid and the three Rutbah city council representatives were escorted to the base chapel tent, where Lt. Cmdr. Kobena Arthur, the battalion’s chaplain, was holding Sunday religious services.
Arthur has been working closely with Obid for the past two months to facilitate mutual understanding between Coalition forces and the Iraqis in this remote part of western al-Anbar province. It was Arthur’s idea to invite the imam to Camp Korean Village.
“The imam and I built a trust very quickly. I felt that this man was willing to come to my area to share my background and to share my interests,” said Arthur, 53, a reservist and professor of psychology from South Orange, N.J. “I wanted him to see my church, how we conduct services, and share some of his ideas about the Muslim faith and allow the Marines to ask him questions.
As Arthur conducted the traditional non-denominational religious service, the Iraqis observed with evident curiosity, as the congregation sang traditional hymns with accompanying stereo music and a video projecting the lyrics and majestic scenes of nature.
The congregation included about 40 U.S. Marines, soldiers, sailors, and civilian contractors, as well as a number of Ugandans based here with an international security firm.
In his sermon, the chaplain made efforts to address both the Iraqi delegation and the base congregation, stopping frequently for the interpreter to translate everything he said into Arabic.
“Encourage one another to build each other up,” instructed Arthur. “Watchfulness and vigilance are required, as danger can come like a thief in the night. We must work together to initiate change. We must always work together.”
After he finished, Arthur handed the pulpit over to Obid so that he could speak the audience through an interpreter.
“Our holy Koran says all human beings are equal,” insisted Obid. “We must respect each other. The Koran always asks our people to live in peace. Islam never, never believes in terrorism. Jews, Christians, Muslims, we are all of us human beings. I respect your religion, and you must respect mine. I wish for everyone here to live in peace.”
The service concluded with a 45-minute question-and-answer session, during which all attendees had the opportunity to ask the imam questions.
“How does one enter Islam?” asked Lance Cpl. Christopher J. Pryor, 20, an airfield support technician from Houston based here with Marine Air Control Squadron One.
The imam explained the Muslim confession of faith, stating that one must simply say and believe that there is only one God and that Mohammed is his prophet.
Timothy Mugabame, a 36-year-old security contractor from Kampala, Uganda, asked the imam in earnest if circumcision is a prerequisite for conversion to the Muslim faith.
The ensuing confusion in translation provided a few moments of humor for the congregation. The imam, however, kept his unflappable composure and explained that circumcision is not a requirement, saying that Islam never tries to force anyone to convert and reemphasized his message of mutual respect and understanding between people of different faiths.
The service members posed many doctrinal questions to the imam, which he answered with candid eagerness. He concluded the interfaith dialogue with pronounced direction to the audience.
“Study about our religion while you are here,” said Obid. “It is important to be educated. It is important to learn all you can about all religions.”
After the ceremony, Obid was treated to lunch at the base dining facility. The imam enjoyed his first Philly cheese steak sandwich and, between conversations with Marines and sailors, caught snippets of the Auburn vs. Georgia college football game broadcast on Armed Forces Network.
When asked what he thought of American football, Obid smiled and declared, “Basketball is the best American sport.”