WASHINGTON—The U.S. Army Office of the Chief of Chaplains is checking into a report by Knight Ridder Newspapers that an Army chaplain in Iraq withheld clean bathing water from U.S. soldiers who did not first agree to hear a sermon and be baptized.
The allegation against Chaplain Josh Llano, 32, of Houston, has drawn heated responses from religious, civil libertarian and atheist groups who say the practice amounts to religious coercion. Army officials said that so far their investigation hasn't shown that to be true.
"Neither the Army nor the Army Chief of Chaplains approves of religious coercion, but reports we've gotten indicate that's not what this was at all," said Pentagon spokesperson Martha Rudd, who added that there was plenty of additional water available to soldiers at that camp.
"We don't have any information at this time that the chaplain was coercing anyone. But we're still looking into it."
Army Chief of Chaplains Gaylord Gunhus said he believes Llano was simply joking with soldiers of the Army V Corps combat support system at Camp Bushmaster near Najaf.
"I have confidence in my chaplains," Gunhus said from his office at the Pentagon. "It had nothing to do with keeping people from having water or anything at all. Speculation is, he was jesting with a bunch of folks."
Llano, a Southern Baptist, recently told a Knight Ridder reporter that he makes soldiers sit through a 90-minute sermon and then take part in baptismal services in a 500-gallon container used only for baptisms. Rudd said many of the soldiers had gone up to 10 days without a shower.
In the story, which appeared in newspapers throughout the country, Llano said the soldiers willingly agreed to his terms. Said Llano in the story: "It's simple. They want water. I have it, as long as they agree to get baptized."
Llano could not be reached for comment on Thursday. But Rudd said Llano told investigators he does not recall making those statements. She said Llano's commanders have denied the water-for-baptism allegations. Knight Ridder reporter Meg Laughlin, who wrote the original story, noted that she was not alone when Llano made the statements.
But the media accounts have set off a controversy. Military chaplains are supposed to provide services when asked—and with no conditions, said Edd Doerr, executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty, a multi-faith group in Washington that advocates for separation of church and state. Requiring soldiers to be baptized in exchange for water ignores their right to religious freedom, Doerr said.
"This guy went way overboard," Doerr said of Llano. "Chaplains have got to have an appreciation for the diverse faiths of the men they're serving."
Doerr said his group has sent a letter asking Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to "do whatever it takes to get (Llano) to behave."
Llano is trying to "lure potential converts and he is preying on vulnerable, stressed-out military men and women," to do so, according to a statement by Kathleen Johnson, military director for American Atheists, a civil rights advocacy group in Parsippany, N.J.
"Pastor Llano should share water and other resources with all needy troops. He's using government resources to advance his particular religious agenda," Johnson's statement said.
Llano was an Army drill sergeant before he was ordained, and served as a military chaplain through the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, Ga. The convention has 320 military chaplains serving in the Middle East.
North American Mission Board Vice President John Yarbrough said he will wait to see what the Army finds before responding. The options include counseling Llano or revoking his endorsement to serve as a military chaplain through the Southern Baptist Convention.
While not confirming whether Llano erred, Yarbrough said: "This is very atypical of the way our chaplains would function."
Rudd said the investigation would be conducted on an informal basis and would not require input from the Army Office of Inspector General.
(Garfield reported from Charlotte, Pugh from Washington.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.