Report: British Soldiers Using Models of Mosques for Target Practice

While a military spokesman denied the structures were meant to be mosques, he defended the use of props 'that replicate the environment [soldiers] will be deployed to.'

The British military has been using models of mosques as targets in shooting practice, a UK newspaper reported on Thursday.

According to a report in the Daily Mail, "seven replica mosques were erected" at Catterick Garrison, a major British Army base in North Yorkshire, "to prepare soldiers for combat in Afghanistan."

Some of the mosques have single domes and others have double domes, and appear to be targets for six firing ranges around 100 meters away, in full view of the main road.

The chairman of the local Bradford Council for Mosques (BCM) accused the British military of using the mosques as a "symbol of danger."

The cutouts were first spotted from a nearby road.

"We came to know about the structures because a passerby saw them from the road and felt that they resembled mosques," Ishtiaq Ahmed of the BMC told the Daily Mail.

Upon visiting the site on Wednesday, Ahmed said they discovered the structures were, indeed, cutouts of mosques.

"We saw soldiers on the firing range yesterday and we were very shocked and angered and also confused as to why the British Army would do something like this -- it seems like a very silly thing to do," he said.

Anyone looking at it will think about mosques and Muslims and think about them in a negative way. The shape of the structures, the green color of the dome -- symbolizes an Islamic place of worship. What angers me very much is that we are conditioning the young British to say that mosques are a place where you are going to find danger and a place to target and that is really disturbing.

Ironically, Ahmed said the BCM has been trying to work with the British Military "to help them recruit more soldiers from the Muslim community."

The Ministry of Defense, for its part, denies the structures were meant to resemble mosques, describing them as "generic Eastern buildings" and denying that they were used for target practice.

'We Hunt People For Jesus'

Defenders of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the broader fight against "Islamic extremism," often characterize the enemy as a group of religious fanatics bent on destroying Judeo-Christian civilization. Yet Muslims around the world have watched as soldiers deployed in Western-led wars have not only bombed real mosques and desecrated holy symbols with callous consistency, but have gone so far as to suggest they are on a mission to convert Muslims to Christianity -- inevitably casting the wars as a clash of religions.

There are many examples:

-- In May 2008, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Hammond, commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, was forced to apologize to Iraqis on behalf of a U.S. soldier who used a copy of the Qur'an as target practice. In a letter of apology, the unidentified soldier, who was redeployed to the U.S., called shooting the holy book "shortsighted, very reckless and irresponsible," but said, "in my heart [the actions] were not malicious."

-- Earlier that year, hundreds of Afghan villagers protested in Helmand province after British soldiers reportedly threw copies of the Qu'ran on the floor during a raid in search of Taliban fighters. "The villagers told them that there were no Taliban hiding in the villages and swore by copies of the Qu'ran they had in their hands," a protester named Ghulam Mohammad told the Daily Mail. "The British soldiers threw away the Qu'ran and began searching the houses."

-- In January of this year, ABC News reported that the U.S. military was using military weaponry inscribed with passages from the New Testament, despite the fact that "U.S. military rules specifically prohibit the proselytizing of any religion in Iraq or Afghanistan" -- a rule meant "to prevent criticism that the U.S. [is] embarked on a religious 'Crusade' in its war against al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents."

The Bible-inscribed weaponry "allows the Mujahedeen, the Taliban, al Qaeda and the insurrectionists and jihadists to claim they're being shot by Jesus rifles," Michael Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation told ABC.

-- In 2004, during the first battle of Fallujah -- known as the City of Mosques -- the U.S. bombed a mosque using hellfire missiles, killing some 40 people. "Worshippers had gathered for afternoon prayers," according to the Associated Press, which reported that makeshift "hospitals were set up in private homes to treat the wounded and prepare the dead for burial."

-- During the second battle of Fallujah, in November 2004, after U.S. Marines stormed a different mosque, one soldier was caught on video shooting an unarmed injured prisoner at point blank range, leading to an investigation.

-- In May 2009, Al Jazeera captured damning footage of the chief of U.S. military chaplains in Afghanistan exhorting U.S. soldiers "to be witnesses" for Jesus. "The special forces guys -- they hunt men basically. We do the same things as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus," Lieutenant-Colonel Gary Hensley told soldiers at Bagram Air Base. "Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them into the kingdom. That's what we do, that's our business."

The report also revealed Bibles translated into Pashto, apparently for distribution to locals. "I … want to praise God because my church collected some money to get Bibles for Afghanistan," one soldier, Sergeant Jon Watt, said on tape.

-- In another notorious series of incidents, Army Maj. Gen. William Boykin, an evangelical Christian, declared the supremacy of Christianity over Islam. "In October 2003, Boykin was revealed to have gone on several anti-Muslim rants, in public speeches, many of which he delivered in military uniform," Jeremy Scahill wrote last May. "Since January 2002, Boykin had spoken at 23 religious-oriented events, wearing his uniform at all but two."

Among Boykin's statements, he said he knew the U.S. would prevail over a Muslim adversary in Somalia because "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol." Boykin also charged that Islamic radicals want to destroy America "because we're a Christian nation" that "will never abandon Israel." Our "spiritual enemy," Boykin declared, "will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus."

-- Last spring, an article in GQ reported that cover sheets adorning top-secret intelligence briefings at the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld featured Bible verses atop military imagery, "and were delivered by Rumsfeld himself to the White House" to President Bush, "who referred to America's war on terror as a 'crusade.'" (An example of the Bible verses: "Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and your plans will succeed," printed over an image of a soldier in Iraq.)

-- Then there are the numerous reports out of Guantanamo Bay that military guards shredded copies of the Qu'ran and flushed them down the toilet, an allegation that sparked violent, global outrage after being published in Newsweek in 2005. The Pentagon pressured the magazine to retract the allegation, but acknowledged what reporter Michael Isikoff described as "five confirmed instances of [Qu'ranic] misconduct," among them, a copy that was urinated on, a copy that was defaced with an obscenity, as well as "Qu'rans being kicked" and "stepped on." 

'We Have No Intention of Offending Religious Sensibilities'

Given this history -- not to mention the photographs published in the Daily Mail -- it is hard to take at face value the Ministry of Defense's claim that the mosque-like models were never intended as shooting targets. The Bradford Council for Mosques has called on the British military to "remove the structures without delay and apologize to the Muslim community."

Although a military spokesperson apologized for any offense the hardwood structures may have caused, he defended the use of props "that replicate the environment [soldiers] will be deployed to."

"Providing the best training facilities for our armed forces ahead of deployment to operational theaters is a priority for us," he said.

"We have no intention of offending religious sensibilities."

For more images of the shooting range, go here.

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Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. Follow her on Twitter.