Interview: Four military chaplains on ensuring freedom of belief in the armed forces
Last February, the Romanian Chairmanship of the Forum for Security Co-operation (FSC) invited four military chaplains, from Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania and the United States, to address OSCE delegations. Here are some of their views:
As a military chaplain, what is your position in the armed forces?
Ion Ilinca, Military Priest in the Department for Religious Assistance of the Ministry of National Defence of Romania: We have the position of an officer, but we do not carry a rank. It is much easier to talk to a soldier or general as a chaplain than, let's say, as an officer.
Colonel George Youstra, Chief of Religious Affairs of the United States Air Force: In the United States, we do have a rank – I am a Colonel. As you rise in rank, a transition takes place. The lower you are, the more religious support you do – religious rites, services, counselling. As you become more senior in rank, you become more of a strategic advisor, because you are serving officers of higher rank.
Stefan Gugerel, Military Chaplain and Director of the Institute for Religion and Peace of the Military Ordinariate, Austria: In Austria the system for chaplains is similar to that for medical personnel or psychologists. They wear ranks, but also the symbol of their service, in my case the cross.
Chief Imam Nesib Hadžić of the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina: When the armed forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina were established, imams, chaplains and orthodox priests were introduced into the army. Chaplains do not to carry weapons, but we do wear ranks and insignia.
Is it usual for a chaplain to have military training?
Hadžić: Military imams, chaplains should be with the soldiers. We train with them – for example, I have jumped out of airplanes. I went to special forces school and I have been to all the professional development courses attended by military officers. But I also had specialized training as a chaplain.
Gugerel: In Austria, in accordance with our conscription system, military chaplains have been conscripts for at least six months. They also complete special courses for military chaplains. They, when they are posted with their units, they do training with them, as part of the military command.
Ilinca: In Romania, there are two courses for chaplains, a basic one and an advanced one. Also, before a military chaplain goes to his first posting with a unit, he go for military training.
How does the work of chaplains promote freedom of belief in the armed forces?
Youstra: The most important thing that we as military chaplains have is what we would call "privileged communication". That is something no one else in the United States military has – doctors don't have it, lawyers don't have it. If you went to talk to me as a priest in a confessional, no one can ever make me share what you shared with me. That is very important. In the air force for example, if a pilot is depressed, he'll come to talk to me, but he won't talk to the doctor, because the doctor might ground him and he won't be able to fly an aircraft. He can talk to his chaplain knowing that I am not going to tell his boss. I think that is an important aspect of what we do, and guaranteeing religious freedom is also that guaranteeing that secrecy, the right of being able to talk to me in private.
Hadžić: I would like to say something about working with personnel of other religious faiths. As an imam, I will not talk to someone from another religion about how good Islam is. Rather, if I can help him, I will help him. The most important thing is to work together and to tolerate differences between the religions. For example I always organize a celebration after our month of fasting, where we also invite Serbs and Croats. We join in their celebrations as well. To give another example, Orthodox priests gave lectures to Muslims about the most important things in the rites of the Orthodox Church, so that others are aware of them. And I gave a lecture about Islam, and not one of the participants was Muslim.
In 2007, when we started to build the national army, there were concerns, because we were building the army out of people who used to fight against each other. But after ten years of hard work, it is an amazing team. We haven’t had any problems regarding religion. Muslim commanders, for example, are more sensitive to Orthodox and Catholic believers and the Orthodox commanders are more sensitive to Muslims, because they are is afraid to do something wrong towards them. And that is good.
Ilinka: I think the great advantage of military pastoral care or chaplaincy is that we are not at home. Interreligious dialogue is much easier here because it is not about defending one’s territory, the parish or mosque. We all serve the military, we wear the same clothes, we eat the same – almost the same – food, in the same room, at the same time and we sleep in the same barracks. So we can work together and also work against prejudices.
What is the most difficult part of your job as a chaplain?
Hadžić: The most difficult thing is when, for example, a soldier is killed in the mission. The imam needs to go to the family and tell them that he lost his life.
Youstra: Yes, you are absolutely right. On the ministry side, the worst thing to have to do is a death notification. That is hard. But on a personal level, one of the most difficult things is to do what we tell everyone else to do: take care of ourselves and our families. We are in the hospitals in the war zones and we see the amputations, the death, the dying, and we put so much time and effort into taking care of our soldiers and our airmen that we don't do a very good job at taking care of ourselves.