WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military is investigating a Marine accused of promoting Christianity in Iraq by giving coins to civilians with a Bible verse written on them in Arabic, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
“They have initiated an investigation into that and there is some evidence of an individual that was doing that,” said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.
The Marine has been accused of distributing the coins to Iraqis as they passed through a check point in Falluja, U.S. officials said.
“Where will you spend eternity?” was written on one side of the coins, according to a report from McClatchy News Service.
On the other was a Bible verse written in Arabic referring to Jesus: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16.”
If true, the Marine would have violated U.S. military rules that prohibit the promotion of any religion, faith or practice.
“This has our full attention,” Col. James Welsh, the U.S. commander in western Iraq, said in a statement. “We deeply value our relationship with the local citizens and share their concerns over this serious incident.”
Christians make up around 3 percent of the population in mostly Muslim Iraq.
The United States, with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been accused by Islamist groups of seeking to convert Iraqis and of denigrating Islam. The Bush administration rejects such charges but has been embarrassed by the actions of some U.S. troops.
Last week, President George W. Bush apologized and promised to prosecute a U.S. soldier accused of using a copy of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, for target practice in Iraq.
Handing out or exchanging coins is a tradition within the U.S. military. The coins are most often minted with the emblem of a unit or other military affiliation and senior commanders have their own coins.
Often, U.S. defense secretaries hand out their coins or a “Combating Terrorism” coin to troops in the war zone and sometimes to visitors. Service members often collect dozens of these sought-after coins.
Editing by Frances Kerry and John O'Callaghan