WASHINGTON – A Michigan defense contractor will voluntarily stop stamping references to Bible verses on combat rifle sights made for the U.S. military, a major buyer of the company's gear.
In a statement released Thursday, Trijicon of Wixom, Mich., says it is also providing to the armed forces free of charge modification kits to remove the Scripture citations from the telescoping sights already in use. Through multimillion dollar contracts, the Marine Corps and Army have more than 300,000 Trijicon sights.
The references to Bible passages raised concerns that the citations break a government rule that bars proselytizing by American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are predominantly Muslim countries.
A spokesman for U.S. Central Command initially said the Trijicon sights didn't violate the ban and compared the citations on the sights to the "In God We Trust" inscription printed on U.S. currency.
On Thursday, however, Army Gen. David Petraeus, Central Command's top officer, called the practice "disturbing."
"This is a serious concern to me and the other commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan," Petraeus told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
New Zealand announced Thursday that they would remove the citations from the sights they have, and Australia, which also uses the sights, is assessing what to do.
New Zealand defense force spokesman Maj. Kristian Dunne said Trijicon would be instructed to remove the inscriptions from further orders of the gun sights for New Zealand and the letters would be removed from gun sights already in use by troops.
The inscriptions are not obvious and appear in raised lettering at the end of the stock number. Trijicon's rifle sights use tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, to create light and help shooters hit what they're 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: "Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, 'I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life,"' according to the King James version of the Bible.
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 commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ," the King James version reads.
Photos posted on a Defense Department Web site show Iraqi forces training with rifles equipped with the inscribed sights.
Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said in a letter sent Thursday to President Barack Obama that the gun sights "clearly violate" the rule against proselytizing. Gaddy added that "images of American soldiers as Christian crusaders come to mind when they are carrying weaponry bearing such verses."
Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, contacted The Associated Press last week about the Scripture citations. He said he had received complaints from active-duty and retired members of the military. Weinstein said he couldn't identify them because they fear retaliation.
The company's practice of putting Bible references on the sites began nearly 30 years ago by Trijicon's founder, Glyn Bindon, who was killed in a plane crash in 2003. His son Stephen, Trijicon's president, has continued the practice.
"Trijicon has proudly served the U.S. military for more than two decades, and our decision to offer to voluntarily remove these references is both prudent and appropriate," Stephen Bindon said in the statement.
The statement does not provide an estimate on the removal costs. A company spokesman did not return a telephone call.
The company is also making the same offer to military in other countries that have purchased Trijicon's rifle sights.
An Army spokesman said Thursday the service was unaware of the coded biblical references until a few days ago.
"It is not the policy of the Army or the Department of Defense to put religious references of any kind on its equipment," Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings said.
Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Geraldine Carey said the service "is making every effort to remove these markings from all of our scopes and will ensure that all future procurement of these scopes will not have these types of markings."