Combat rifle sights used by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan carry references to Bible verses, stoking concerns about whether the inscriptions break a government rule that bars proselytizing by American troops.
Military officials said the citations do not violate the ban and they will not stop using the telescoping sights, which allow troops to pinpoint the enemy day or night.
The contractor that makes the equipment, Trijicon, said the U.S. military has been a customer since 1995, and the company has never received any complaints about the Scripture citations.
"We don't publicize this," Tom Munson, Trijicon's director of sales and marketing, told The Associated Press. "It's not something we make a big deal out of. But when asked, we say, 'Yes, it's there."'
Verses from John, Corinthians
The inscriptions are subtle and appear in raised lettering at the end of the stock number.
'I don't have to wonder … how the American public would react if citations from the Qur'an were being inscribed.' — Mikey Weinstein, Military Religious Freedom Foundation
Trijicon's rifle sights use tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, to create light and help shooters hit what they are aiming for.
Markings on the Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight, which is standard issue to U.S. special operations forces, include "JN8:12," a reference to John 8:12: "When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."'
The Trijicon Reflex sight is stamped with 2COR4:6, a reference to part of the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians: "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ."
Photos posted on a Defence Department website show Iraqi forces training with rifles equipped with the inscribed sights.
The Defence Department is a major customer of Trijicon's. In 2009 alone, the Marine Corps signed deals worth $66 million US for the company's products. Trijicon's scopes and optical devices for guns range in cost from a few hundred dollars to $13,000, according to the company's website.
Complaints from retired soldiers
The biblically inscribed sights could give the Taliban and other enemy forces a propaganda tool: that U.S. troops are Christian crusaders invading Muslim countries, said Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a non-profit watchdog group opposed to religious favouritism within the military.
"I don't have to wonder for a nanosecond how the American public would react if citations from the Qur'an were being inscribed onto these U.S. armed forces gun sights instead of New Testament citations," Weinstein said.
He has received complaints about the Scripture citations from active-duty and retired members of the military. He said he couldn't identify them because they fear retaliation.
'They'll continue to be used'
A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which manages military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the inscribed sights do not violate the ban on proselytizing because there is no effort to distribute the equipment beyond the U.S. troops who use them.
"This situation is not unlike the situation with U.S. currency," said the spokesman, Air Force Maj. John Redfield. "Are we going to stop using money because the bills have 'In God We Trust' on them? As long as the sights meet the combat needs of troops, they'll continue to be used."
Capt. Geraldine Carey, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, said Tuesday in an emailed statement that "we are aware of the issue and are concerned with how this may be perceived." Carey said Marine Corps acquisition officials plan to meet with Trijicon to discuss future purchases of the company's sights. The statement did not say what the nature of the discussions would be.
The army did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Munson, Trijicon's sales director, said the practice of putting Bible references on the sites began nearly 30 years ago by company founder Glyn Bindon, who was killed in a plane crash in 2003. His son Stephen, Trijicon's president, has continued the practice.