NAPLES, Italy — A live Nativity scene planned at the U.S. Navy base in Bahrain was dropped from a holiday program after an atheist group complained that it amounted to command sponsorship of a Christian event and could put servicemembers in the Muslim-majority country at risk.
The live nativity was initially scheduled for Dec. 6 during an annual holiday tree-lighting ceremony hosted by Naval Support Activity Bahrain. The celebration also advertised appearances from “Mr. & Mrs. Claus and Camel,” according to a promotional flyer.
The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers wrote a complaint to the Inspector General responsible for Navy installations, asking that the event be investigated because it promoted “Christianity as the official religion of the base.”
“This violates the Constitution and the mandates of the command to support all belief while privileging none,” the group wrote, according to a post on its website.
The event also could foster misconceptions about the U.S. military’s religious agenda in a Muslim country, the group argued.
“This event threatens U.S. security and violates the Constitution as well as command policy,” the group wrote.
According to the group’s web posting, the inspector general responded that: “Upon further review, the CRP (Command Religious Program) will be removing the Living Nativity Program from the general base secular holiday festivities and co-locating it more appropriately with some of our other private religious and faith-based observances at the chapel at a separate time.”
Whether the live nativity was going to be held in the chapel at a later date was undetermined.
The MAAF regularly objects to religious events at military bases and had also complained this year about Christmas events at Army bases in Honolulu and Fort Belvoir, Va. Earlier this year, the group found fault with a gospel concert held at the Navy’s Bahrain base during the final week of Ramadan. None of these events were canceled.
“A Nativity scene is an exclusive, sectarian, Christian activity,” said Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.
Torpy said the atheist group has no problem with Christmas trees, Santa Claus and other secular traditions. But Christmas trimmings directly linked to Christianity, including angels, nativity scenes, prayers and religious-leaning songs “cross the line,” especially when supported by government funding.
Torpy said he did not request that the Nativity scene be canceled, only that it should not be included as part of the basewide holiday celebration.
“It is dishonest for the command to attempt to advertise the event as a ‘holiday’ activity when it is so clearly and exclusively biased toward Christianity,” MAAF wrote in its official complaint. “Also of concern is the likelihood that the predominantly Muslim local population will see the U.S. military as a Christian force rather than as a secular military… in their Muslim country.”
Christmas is openly celebrated in Bahrain among its Christian minority population.
The Rev. Fredrick Peter D’souza of the Sacred Heart Church in Manama said the church’s Christmas Eve mass is held outdoors because it draws 4,000 people each year. D’souza said the Catholic church receives permission from the Bahraini government to hold the outdoor mass and has never had any problems with protesters or critics.
D’sourza said the church is decorated for the season with a Christmas tree and garland.
“We celebrate as usual,” he said.