Lance Cpl. John Scott is a Marine grunt, training for the dangerous job of breaching Iraqi defenses.

He is also Kashim Ishmael Elijah Scott, a follower of Islam who feels he has a special purpose defending the birthplace of the religion despite differences with his hosts and the U.S. military over his faith."I feel like I have more of a purpose than the average Marine. Most people here are wondering why, they are trying to grasp a reason. I feel I am defending Mecca and Medina, which is sacred ground," Scott said.

The 20-year-old from Los Angeles is a member of Alpha Company in the 1st Battalion, Third Marine Regiment, which was deployed in September.

When he got to Saudi Arabia he reaffirmed his Islamic faith in a Saudi mosque, "just to feel that I did it in the homeland."

Lance Cpl. D. Carlos Timmons, 21, of Atlanta decided to convert to Islam while in Saudi Arabia.

"Not many brothers can say `I made shahada in Saudi Arabia,"' he said. Making shahada, which means witness in Arabic, is one of the five main tenets of the faith.

An adherent must say "I witness that there is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet" in the presence of a learned prayer leader.

He also must accept the other four principles: praying five times a day, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, donating money for the poor annually and making a pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina - where Mohammed founded the faith - at least once in his lifetime.

Members of the predominately black Islamic sect in the United States are sometimes called Black Muslims.

In the United States, charismatic Black Muslim leaders like the late Malcolm X used Islam to stress black nationalism. Some have called for creating a separate, black nation in the United States that would be loosely based on Islam.

"The Saudis stress we have to come back to the principles, that U.S. Muslims have strayed from the faith, its books, the oneness of God," Scott said.

"They said we were getting too much into the social aspect of things and not praising God enough. That was the only derogatory thing we heard from them," he added.

For their part, the Saudis have been trying to counteract the negative image Islam has in the United States due to a decade of confrontation with some of its more extremist elements, especially Shiite Moslem kidnappers in Lebanon and others fueled by the revolutionary zeal of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

"Islam was introduced in the picture of Khomeini, of terrorists and so forth. This is not Islamic," said Mohammed Al-Okat, a Saudi who organizes lectures for the troops on Saudi culture.

Here, the holy book the Koran is considered the constitution.

Followers of Islam recognize Jesus as a prophet, but reject that he is the son of God and don't accept Christmas as a holiday.

"Such honoring is only for God, not for any human being," said Dr. Mohammed Al-Dabbal, director for literary criticism at Imam Mohammed Ibn Saud Islamic University of Riyadh, in an interview.

Scott and Timmons said they do not celebrate Christmas. Other tenets of the faith they do not follow strictly, but they pointed out that Mohammed himself allowed soldiers fighting a war some leeway. They only pray three times a day, for example.

"We do too much" to pray five times, said Timmons.