WASHINGTON — Inside the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial Chapel, a female Air Force sergeant unlaced her combat boots, set them under the pews and slipped her black veil around her hair and over her camouflaged uniform.
The men pushed back the altar for Christian services to make room for their large green prayer rugs; then moved the podium from one side of the room to the other so that the congregation would be facing Mecca.
"Allahu Akhbar," called out Ali Mohammed, a contractor who works at the Pentagon, raising his hands to his face as he chanted the call to prayer. "Allahu Akhbar."
While politicians across the country in an election year may be debating the appropriateness of building a Muslim center, including a mosque, two blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York, there's no such debate at the Pentagon.
Instead, roughly 400 worshipers, including Muslims, attend prayer services every week in the chapel, a non-denominational facility built over the rubble left behind when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon.
Opponents of the New York mosque, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, say it would be disrespectful of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, to allow Muslims to pray near the World Trade Center site.
That's never been an issue at the Pentagon, where 125 people who worked there died that day. Muslims have been praying at the Pentagon's 9/11 chapel since 2002, gathering every day at 2 p.m. around the time of the second of five prayers Muslims are supposed to offer daily.
In the chapel, it's impossible not to think of the terrorist attack. A memorial leading to it lists the names of the victims. Light streaming through a stained glass memorial illuminates the congregation. The memorial reads, "United in memory, September 11, 2001." A poster of a flag with the names of all those killed on Sept. 11 hangs on the wall on the other side of the room. The chapel's windows look out over a much larger 9/11 memorial outside.
Worshippers trickle in, placing their Pentagon badges in their shirt pockets as they walk toward the front, open the palms of their hands and begin to pray.
According to Army statistics, of the more than 1 million serving in the Army, there are 1,977 active duty Muslims, 603 Muslim reservists and 464 National Guardsmen. But there are only six Muslim chaplains to serve them.
To provide an imam on Friday, Islam's holy day, the Army Chaplain's office contracts an imam to speak to worshippers. On this Friday, it was Imam Ghayth Nur Kashif, leading 17 worshippers during the 40-minute service.
"We are challenged to do the best we can during Ramadan," Kashif told the congregation, referring to criticism of the proposed New York Islamic center. "It's not pleasant, but listen to some of the complaints."
The chapel, which was dedicated in November 2002, allots time for nine faiths to worship, including Muslims, Jews, Christians and Hindus.
Army officials said no one has ever objected to Muslims worshipping at the Pentagon chapel. Before the chapel was dedicated, those of any faith who wanted to pray at the Pentagon gathered in various conference rooms because there was no chapel.
On 9/11, 184 people were killed at the Pentagon, 64 of them on Flight 77. More than 2,700 were killed at the World Trade Center. At least 27 people killed in New York were Muslim. Pentagon officials don't think any Muslims, other than the hijackers, were killed at the building.
Officials say that more Muslims have been worshipping at the chapel during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month marked by fasting and abstention from smoking. On Tuesday, the Pentagon held an iftar, the banquet that marks sundown, when the daily fast ends.
Worshippers Friday said that Muslims are routinely under fire and the latest controversy saddened them but didn't surprise them.
"Obviously I have my own bias. I am Muslim," said Mohammed, the Pentagon contractor. "But if I had heard that Jewish organizers wanted to build there, I would be equally open to that."
Mohammed said he finds he can't help but think of where he is when he prays at the Pentagon chapel. He said he tries to focus on why he's there.
"It's just you and God," Mohammed said. "That is why you are there."
After the service, the men picked up their rugs, moved the altar back to the front of the pews, and put the podium back at the other side of the room for the Christian worshippers who'd follow them.
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