Military chaplains from 37 armies meet in Prague

Chairman of Ecumenical Church Council Joel Ruml, Dominik Duka (right), photo: CTK

Top military chaplains from 37 armies of NATO countries, and those affiliated with the alliance’s Partnership for Peace programme are in Prague for their annual conference. Over 80 Christian priests and ministers, together with two rabbis and an imam, will be talking about how to improve their role as ethical guides for the troops.

Dominik Duka, photo: CTK
A small army of top military chaplains came together at the church of St John Nepomuk, just off Prague Castle on Monday evening. The Czech capital hosts this week the 22nd International Conference of Military Chief of Chaplains which is attended by clergymen from 37 armies of NATO countries as well as those affiliated with its Partnership for Peace programme. The chaplains were greeted by Prague Archbishop Dominik Duka and other dignitaries before joining in a common prayer by Christian, Jewish and Muslim chaplains. Archbishop Duka said he has heard an imam praying in a Catholic church before.

“Yes, I have. It’s a kind of tradition, you know, because the old Austro-Hungarian army had imams since the 1870s for its Bosnian troops. So armies in Central Europe were used to Christian ministers as well as Jewish rabbis and those who took care of the needs of Muslim soldiers.”

The annual conference, which was already held in Prague once in the past, is entitled “Military Chaplain as Ethical Advisor”. Colonel Brian Van Sickle is the command chaplain for U.S. European Command, and has worked together with the Czech Army to organize the conference. I asked him what will be discussed at the event.

Chairman of Ecumenical Church Council Joel Ruml, Dominik Duka (right), photo: CTK
“What we hope to do is to use the opportunity to discuss not only lessons learned but ways we might think of the foundations of our ethics – is it our own faith? Or is it a particular perspective of a Muslim, Jew, Christian, whatever.

“So we hope to share and find some common ground and to make all of us better equipped to deal with the warriors who are faced with ethical challenges every day, in the battlefield and when they come home. That’s a big, tall order and we probably won’t get all the way there but we’ll at least begin and elevate each of us.”

Among more than 80 army chaplains are a few rabbis, and one Muslim cleric – the chief imam of the Dutch army, Ali Eddaoudi, who was born in Morocco and whose appointment a few years ago stirred a controversy.

The Dutch military withdrew from Afghanistan last year but imam Eddaoudi says he is often asked about how he feels about serving in an army that fought Muslims.

Photo: Czech Army
“Of course we talk about these things, with military in general and especially Muslim military. You know, when you join an army, the Dutch army or the Czech army, you are a Czech or Dutch citizen. I feel as a Dutch citizen, I came there when I was seven years old, and I have more connections with Holland than with Morocco or another Muslim country. So I feel as a Dutch citizen.”

The conference, which will also give the chaplains a chance to explore Prague’s rich religious heritage, will finish with a gala evening on Thursday.