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Army refutes report that chaplain offered baptisms for baths in Iraq

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–The Miami Herald’s implication that a Southern Baptist chaplain offered baptisms as a way for dirty soldiers to get a bath has been refuted by the Army Chief of Chaplains office, which found in its own inquiry that Lt. Josh Llano had not attempted to coerce conversion or baptism.

The Miami Herald article — which appeared April 4 and was picked up nationally by Knight Ridder news service — prompted concern from both Southern Baptist leaders and church-state separation advocates. It described the presence at Camp Bushmaster in the Iraqi desert of “an oasis of sorts” in a 500-gallon baptismal pool. The premise was that in a camp where showers had not been available for a number of days, the chaplain was pitching baptism as a way to get clean physically as well as spiritually.

The Chief of Chaplains office inquiry, however, found that was not the case.

“He did make some of the remarks the reporter attributed to him, but not all to her, and not in the context or with the intent the article appeared to suggest,” a statement from the Chief of Chaplains office said. The statement later added, “Such behavior would be wrong, and our chaplains, commanders and soldiers know this and would have corrected the situation had such behavior actually occurred.”

The statement also noted that there was no critical shortage of water at the camp that would make filling the baptismal pool inappropriate.

“Soldiers had no need to resort to being baptized to get clean,” the statement said.

The original story also stated that baptism candidates “have to go to one of Llano’s hour-and-a-half sermons in his dirt-floor tent. Then the baptism takes an hour of quoting from the Bible.”

Actually, the “hour-and-a-half sermon” was a regular daily Bible study offered in the camp. And the “hour of quoting from the Bible” was simply a normal baptismal service consisting of prayer, singing, Scripture and remarks by the officiating minister, the Army statement said.

The statement also cited an exemplary service record by Llano, who served in the military 10 years before leaving to enroll at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas. After graduation, he re-entered the Army as a chaplain.

“I am confident that Chaplain Llano does not, has not and will not use coercion in the exercise of his official responsibilities,” said Col. Al Buckner, director of operations for the Chief of Chaplains office.

Dave Mullis, who coordinates military chaplaincy for the North American Mission Board, said he found the news story completely out of character with what he knew about both Southern Baptist beliefs and practice and military chaplaincy guidelines.

“My first response was that it was not true. But we still want to make sure that any chaplain would not be conducting an ordinance of the church in such a coercive manner…. I am grateful, as reported through the Army Chief of Chaplains office, that the situation described in the article is not accurate.”

In a Religion News Service report on the issue, Mark Seibel, managing editor of The Miami Herald, defended the original story by Meg Laughlin, a Herald reporter.

“I don’t think the story suggested coercion,” he said. “That’s just how some people want to read it.”

The Chief of Chaplains Office statement said Llano has conducted 57 baptisms at the base camp.

“Most were soldiers who already practiced a Christian religion and wanted to be baptized either as a reaffirmation of their faith or because they had never been baptized previously,” the statement said.

“It is quite common for soldiers who do not actively practice religion in peacetime to turn to religion for comfort and solace in times of danger and grief. That is one reason why Army Chaplains are deployed with the troops and go wherever they go, risking their lives in the same way the soldiers do.”

Southern Baptists currently have nearly 1,000 military chaplains serving around the world.

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  • James Dotson