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(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal says he is not part of a religious order waging war on Islam despite recent assertions by acclaimed journalist Seymour Hersh.

Speaking in Qatar earlier this week, Hersh claimed that McChrystal and current members of the special operations community are members of the Knights of Malta and Opus Dei, both Catholic organizations, according to the blog Foreign Policy.

“They do see what they’re doing — and this is not an atypical attitude among some military — it’s a crusade, literally,” Foreign Policy quoted Hersh as saying. “They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They’re protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function.”

Hersh won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for exposing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the subsequent military coverup.

But McChrystal’s spokesman, David Bolger, said Hersh was way off base in this case.

“The allegations recently made by Seymour Hersh relating to General McChrystal’s involvement with an organization called The Knights of Malta are completely false and without basis in fact,” Bolger said in an e-mail. “General McChrystal is not and has never been a member of that organization.”

Prior to his stint as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, McChrystal served as the head of Joint Special Operations Command.

Officials with U.S. Special Operations Command declined to comment on Hersh’s allegations.

Stars and Stripes was unable to reach the officials with the Knights of Malta, but a spokesman for Opus Dei said the group is meant to help Christians find God, not to fight Islam.

“We have a number of activities: So it would be classes on Catholic doctrine, teaching people about the Catholic faith, and there’s classes about how to live that faith in the everyday world,” said group spokesman David Gallagher. “We have weekend retreats.”

Opus Dei was portrayed in “The Da Vinci Code” as a secret society, but Gallagher noted that it has a website and an office in Manhattan.

“I don’t think it’s too secret,” he said.

Hersh told Stars and Stripes he has proof to back up his claims but he declined to provide any because he is writing a book that will touch on the subject and revealing his evidence before the book is published would be “unethical.”

He added that it is impossible to be around special operations troops and not notice just how religious they are.

But one former Green Beret and defense official disputed the notion that there is a religious cabal inside special operations.

Religion is considered very personal and rarely discussed among special operators, said Kalev “Gunner” Sepp, a Special Forces officer from 1986 to 1999 and deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and counterterrorism from 2007 to 2009.

There have been exceptions, such as one Special Forces commander who gave church sermons while in uniform, but such practices have not been widely embraced, Sepp said.

“Zealotry is viewed as being unprofessional,” he said. “Anyone who professes religion in an open way like that is suspect to where their real loyalties lie.”


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