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Nativity scenes out at Guantanamo dining halls

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Troops eat lunch near a nativity scene at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, Wednesday, Dec, 18, 2013. Some troops have complained that nativity scenes and Christmas decorations at two dining facilities.(AP Photo/Ben Fox) Troops eat lunch near a nativity scene at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, Wednesday, Dec, 18, 2013. Some troops have complained that nativity scenes and Christmas decorations at two dining facilities.(AP Photo/Ben Fox)

By BEN FOX

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) — The commander of the Guantanamo Bay naval base decided Wednesday to move Nativity scenes from two dining halls following complaints that the decorations improperly promoted Christianity.

Both Nativity scenes will be moved to the courtyard of the base chapel, said Kelly Wirfel, a spokeswoman for Capt. John Nettleton, commander of the base in southeastern Cuba.

The displays were set up by foreign contractors who manage the two dining facilities and were "not intended to endorse any religion," Wirfel said in response to concerns raised by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

The group, which advocates for religious freedom in the U.S. military, had said earlier that it had been approached by troops who felt the Nativity scenes and Christmas decorations were inappropriate.

Wirfel said base officials had received no complaints about the displays. Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said the organization received an email from 18 service members who were afraid that any direct appeal to commanders would be ignored and result in retribution.

"They are terrified. Right now, there is a witch hunt going on to find out who did this," said Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer who said the troops wanted to remain anonymous.

Eleven of those who complained are Protestant or Roman Catholic and the rest are Muslim, Jewish, agnostic or atheist, he said.

The base has a population of nearly 6,000 military and civilian personnel. Outside the coils of razor wire surrounding an area where nearly 160 prisoners are held, the base has set up many exterior displays of Christmas lights and other decorations along wide streets, creating the feel of a typical suburban American town in December.

The challenged decorations are inside two dining facilities, one of which is used primarily by people who work inside the prison such as guards and translators. An email sent to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation from the troops said the Nativity scenes went up in late November in the center of the eating area and no other religions were represented despite the presence of other faiths on the base.

"By placing these displays in prominent common areas, the impression is that one faith is better than others and that the military institution singularly promotes Christianity," said the email, provided to The Associated Press by the organization without the names of the senders.

The email said prominent members of their command had shown "Christian religious undertones," which led them to believe they could not complain directly about the decorations.

The senders said they put up with a great deal of hardship in their jobs, including having bodily fluids hurled at them by prisoners, and should not be made uncomfortable on their time off.

"We would prefer to not have a large deal made out of this situation and only ask that these clear violations of military policy, and the Constitution, be removed immediately," the email said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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