FALLUJAH, Iraq - At the western entrance to the Iraqi city of Fallujah Tuesday, Muamar Anad handed his residence badge to the U.S. Marines guarding the city. They checked to be sure that he was a city resident, and when they were done, Anad said, a Marine slipped a coin out of his pocket and put it in his hand.
Out of fear, he accepted it, Anad said. When he was inside the city, the college student said, he looked at one side of the coin. "Where will you spend eternity?" it asked.
He flipped it over, and on the other side it read, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16."
"They are trying to convert us to Christianity," said Anad, a Sunni Muslim like most residents of this city in Anbar province. At home, he told his story, and his relatives echoed their disapproval: They'd been given the coins, too, he said.
Fallujah, the scene of a bloody U.S. offensive against Sunni insurgents in 2004, has calmed and grown less hostile to American troops since residents turned against al Qaida in Iraq, which had tried to force its brand of Islamist extremism on the population.
Now residents of the city are abuzz that some Americans whom they consider occupiers are also acting as Christian missionaries. Residents said some Marines at the western entrance to their city have been passing out the coins for two days in what they call a "humiliating" attempt to convert them to Christianity.
In the markets, people crowded around men with the coins, passing them to each other and asking in surprise, "Have you seen this?"
The head of the Sunni endowment in Fallujah, the organization that oversees Sunni places of worship and other religious establishments, demanded that the Marines stop.
"We say to the occupiers to stop this," said Sheikh Mohammed Amin Abdel Hadi. "This can cause strife between the Iraqis and especially between Muslim and Christians . ... Please stop these things and leave our homes because we are Muslims and we live in our homes in peace with other religions."
A spokesman said the U.S. military is investigating.
"Multi-National Force-Iraq is investigating a report that U.S. military personnel in Fallujah handed-out material that is religious and evangelical in nature," the spokesman, Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll, said in a statement e-mailed to McClatchy. "Local commanders are investigating since the military prohibits proselytizing any religion, faith or practices."
Multi-National Force-Iraq is the formal name for coalition forces in Iraq.
In interviews, residents of Fallujah repeated two words - "humiliation" and "weakness".
"Because we are weak this is happening," said a shop owner who gave his name as Abu Abdullah. "Passing Christianity this way is disrespectful."
"The occupier is repeatedly trespassing on God and his religion," said Omar Delli, 23. "Now the occupier is planting seeds of strife between the Muslims and Christians. We demand the government in Fallujah have a new demonstration to let the occupier know that these things are humiliating Islam and the Quran."
The controversy over the coins that Iraqis said some Marines are passing out comes on the heels of a tempest triggered by a U.S. sniper who used the Quran, Islam's holy book, for target practice. The sniper was pulled out of Iraq after Iraqi police on May 11 found a Quran with 14 bullet holes and graffiti on the pages.
In Islam, the holy book is never to touch the floor, let alone be defaced. Iraqi leaders condemned the actions, U.S. generals apologized and President Bush offered a personal apology to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
In Fallujah, Mohammed Jaber saw one of the coins and said he thought of the bullets lodged in the Quran, the torture of Iraqi men at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 and the rape of a 14-year-old girl and her murder and that of her family in Mahmoudiya.
"Now we have this missionary way by these coins," he said. "We feel the Muslims are weak and we hope that we will reach a point when we are strong to let them know what is wrong and what is right. "
Naji is a McClatchy special correspondent in Fallujah.
© McClatchy Newspapers 2008