WASHINGTON — While Americans are bitterly debating the proposed building of a mosque near New York's ground zero, Muslims have been praying for years less than 80 feet from where another hijacked jetliner struck.
The Pentagon chapel is part of a memorial to the 184 people killed in 2001 when hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the west side of the Pentagon and plowed through three of the building's five office rings.
As part of its massive renovation, the Pentagon opened the nondenominational chapel in November 2002. The chapel hosts a daily prayer group and weekly worship service for Muslims and provides similar services for Jews, Hindus, Mormons, Protestants, Catholics and Episcopalians.
Pentagon officials say that no one in the military or the families of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has ever protested.
They describe the 80-seat chapel as a peaceful place where some 300 to 400 Pentagon employees come to pray each week.
The goal of the Pentagon chaplain office, which runs the chapel, is to "provide assistance and support for the religious, spiritual and morale needs of all service members and employees," said Army spokesman George Wright.
A proposal to build an Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York has prompted angry protests by victims of the 2001 attacks, which were done in the name of Islam. A majority of New Yorkers say they are opposed to the plan.
Last week, President Barack Obama inserted himself into the debate when he said Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in the U.S. Republicans assailed him as out of touch with mainstream America, and Obama later told reporters that he wasn't endorsing the specifics of the mosque plan.
Perhaps one reason the Pentagon chapel has failed to attract much attention is that it looks more like a conference room than a place of worship with its gray walls and maroon carpet and drapes.
Its stained glass windows, which overlook the Pentagon's outdoor memorial to 9-11 victims, depict a soaring eagle and American flag.
There are no obvious religious statues or symbols, except Catholic holy water at the door, a Bible beneath each seat and an unadorned altar up front.
Otherwise, religious accouterments are brought in for various worship services.
Wright said that Muslim employees can gather for a daily prayer service Monday through Thursday, and attend a Friday worship service run by an imam from a local mosque.
Two in-house Army chaplains run the chapel, neither of which are Muslim. Col. Daniel Minjares is associated with the Church of the Nazarene; his deputy, Lt. Col. Ken Williams, is Southern Baptist.
Wright said the chaplains provide religious services for their denomination but can provide services such as grief and marital counseling to employees of any faith.
Other faiths rely on local temples and churches to lead worship services.
Abraham Scott, whose wife, Janice, was a civilian Army employee killed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, said that while he opposes the lower Manhattan mosque, he "can live with" the fact that Muslims pray at a Pentagon chapel.
"It's not a mosque that's built specifically for Muslims," Scott said. "It's a facility where Muslims can go and pray."
Associated Press writer Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this report.