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Rubber-stamping Islamic chaplains?

National | CHAPLAINCY: A suspicious and tangled trail of schools and accrediting agencies surrounds the case of James Yee-detained on suspicion of espionage-but the question remains: Is political correctness at the Pentagon to blame for lax security?

Issue: "Beyond the nightly news," Oct. 11, 2003

Mystery continues to shroud the case involving Army captain James Yee. He's the Muslim Army chaplain detained on Sept. 10 for possessing classified documents related to suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban "enemy combatants" being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (WORLD, Oct. 4). Federal investigators early this month were keeping the lid on details of their evidence pending formal charges.

One of the elements in the mystery is the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS) and its role in the Yee saga. It is a small Muslim school that trains Sunni imams and chaplains for the military, prisons, hospitals, and university campuses. Located in an industrial park in Leesburg, Va., it offers a three-year master's degree, requiring 90 credit hours. Its president is Taha Jabir Alalwan, a U.S. resident since 1984 who holds a Ph.D. from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the Islamic world's most prestigious school.

GSISS reportedly has been on the Pentagon's list of approved schools since 1991. The Pentagon requires chaplains to have 72 credit hours (down recently from 90) of graduate theological education at a recognized institution-or, more recently, the "equivalent" of such. Normally, equivalence means that a recognized school would examine a candidate's transcripts from a school of lesser standing and attest to their validity. The approved school would then pass along its findings to the faith group's chaplaincy-endorsing body in a "letter of equivalency."

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GSISS did that for Mr. Yee. A former Lutheran, the studious, soft-spoken Mr. Yee graduated in 1990 from West Point. As a cadet, he also served as a volunteer worker with the evangelical Young Life ministry on the side. Mr. Yee left the Army in the mid-1990s, following missile-defense duty in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War and his conversion to Islam. He went off to Syria to spend four years studying Arabic and Islam. He married a Syrian woman. Most of his studies, he told people back home, were at the Abu Nour Foundation's university in Damascus, the country's most important Islamic school.

Home from Syria, he returned to active duty, this time as an Army chaplain-with the help of the letter of equivalency from GSISS and endorsement by the Arlington, Va.-based American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council (MAFVAC), a project of the American Muslim Council. The AMC and a sister organization, the American Muslim Foundation, are advocacy groups that have been under federal scrutiny for alleged financial ties to terrorist organizations, an accusation its leaders have denied repeatedly.

Some initial news accounts following Capt. Yee's arrest reported he had received his training at GSISS. Mr. Alalwan, GSISS's president, denied the school had anything at all to do with the chaplain. Another administrator later acknowledged the school had issued a letter of equivalency on Capt. Yee's behalf, based on his studies at Abu Nour.

The letter's acknowledgment raised more questions days later when officials at 5,000-student Abu Nour told an Arab reporter for Associated Press in Damascus that the school had no record of Mr. Yee having been a student there. They said he may have audited some classes or weekend lectures, but he most certainly was never a registered student, they insisted.

If that is so, then what transcripts or other documents, if any, did GSISS examine to reach its decision about equivalency? Administrators did not return WORLD's calls seeking an answer.

An Egyptian-born expert on Islam and the Middle East suggested to WORLD that Abu Nour officials were lying, for Islam teaches that Muslims cannot offer evidence against other Muslims in court cases in non-Muslim countries. However, other observers pointed out that the denial hurt, not helped, Capt. Yee; they believe Abu Nour is telling the truth. If so, then exactly what was he doing those four years in Syria and possibly elsewhere?

In interviews, some veteran military chaplains, both active and retired, raised additional questions: Why did Syria allow someone from West Point to spend four years there, apparently unsupervised? How could Capt. Yee pass the security check required of all U.S. military officers, given his sojourn in Syria and marriage to a foreigner? Did the Pentagon blink and just allow his "Secret" security status at West Point to carry over to the chaplaincy? (As a chaplain, he wouldn't have been subject to the more rigorous "Top Secret" clearance.)

Officials tightened security at Guantanamo following the arrests of Capt. Yee and, on similar allegations, two Muslim interpreters at the base, one an airman with the Air Force and the other a civilian physician. All three allegedly carted classified documents from the base, including letters from prisoners. Authorities were investigating the extent of possible links between the three men.

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