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ARLINGTON, Va. — It may not be as well-known as Christmas, but to the U.S. military’s 4,370 Buddhists, May 13 will be a very important day: It marks Visakha Puja Day, or the Buddha’s Birthday, one of the most important holy days on the Buddhist calendar.

The Navy’s chaplains got that news out about Visakha Puja Day and other significant religious holidays coming up between now and August using a fleetwide message last week.

“The purpose of the message was to increase commanders’ awareness about the need for religious accommodation,” Chaplain (Lt. Cmdr.) John Kalantzis, an action officer in the Navy Chaplain’s policy office, told Stars and Stripes on Thursday.

The Army’s chaplain corps also uses the Internet to distribute messages about religious matters, using the internal Army Knowledge Online system to distribute a newsletter that lists the holidays, according to Chaplain (Lt. Col) Ron Dolinger, a spokesman in the Army’s Chief of Chaplains office.

The Air Force also has a Chaplain Service Web site that provides religious calendars, along with a wide variety of other information, according to Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Bentley.

But providing a list of holidays is just the first step in ensuring that servicemembers have the opportunity to practice the ceremonies and celebrations required by their faiths, Kalantzis and Dolinger said.

“The vast majority” of servicemembers report that they are Christian, although within that category there are dozens of different groups, Dolinger said.

About 30 percent of servicemembers report that they are Catholic, he said.

Non-Christian servicemembers include Buddhists (served by a single monk in the entire military chaplain corps), about 4,000 Jews (served by 22 Rabbis), about 3,730 Muslims (served by 11 Imams), 1,383 Wiccans, and 353 Hindus, according to statistics provided by Dolinger.

Navy and Marine Corps chaplains are required to compile the self-reported religious preference of every crewmember aboard his or her assigned ship or unit, Kalantzis said.

“Part of our job is to be aware of the needs of the entire crew,” Kalantzis said.

“Anyone who has an interest” in practicing a religious faith, “the chaplains will facilitate that interest,” Kalantzis said.

“The only limits are good order and discipline, and the requirements of the mission,” Kalantzis said.

Carrier battle groups at sea set aside a helicopter — fondly known as the “holy helo” — to fly chaplains of different faiths from ship to ship in order to celebrate services with sailors and Marines while at sea, Kalantzis said.

On shore during deployments, all of the services either transport chaplains to troops, or troops to chaplains to celebrate special holidays, the chaplains said.

“In my experience, commanders go out of their way to accommodate” soldiers who want to travel for religious reasons, Dolinger said.

For example, Dolinger said, when he was in Balad in 2003 the 4th Infantry Division flew Jewish troops from a variety of smaller fire bases to Tikrit in order to celebrate Passover.

Other Jewish troops were flown to Baghdad, while a third group was gathered at Tallil, he said.

For religions that require special foods for particular holidays, such as the Jewish Seder meal eaten during Passover, the Navy and Marine Corps works with the Defense Logistics Agency to procure special prepackaged kits, Kalantzis said.

Religious holidays

Buddhist

Buddha Day (Visakha Puja): May 13

Dalai Lama’s Birthday: July 6

Asalha Puja Day: July 11

Obon (Ulambana): July 15

Christian

Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ: May 25

Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ (Orthodox): June 1

Pentecost: June 4

Pentecost (Orthodox): June 11

Fast and Services for the Theotokos Virgin Mary (Orthodox): Aug. 1-14

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Roman Catholic): Aug. 15

Transfiguration of Christ (Orthodox Christian): Aug. 6

Dormition of the Theotokos Virgin Mary (Orthodox): Aug. 15

Jewish

Shavuot (Pentacost): Begins at sunset, June 1 and ends at nightfall, June 3

Ninth of Av (Tisha B’av): 25-hour fast beginning at sunset, Aug. 2, and ending at nightfall, Aug. 3 (all food and water are prohibited)

Muslim

Lailat Al Miraj: Aug. 22

Source: U.S. Navy Chief of Chaplains

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