Saurabh Das/AP
An army chaplain leads a church service at a U.S. army base in Nangalam, Afghanistan.

Al-Jazeera Accuses US Military of Proselytizing in Afghanistan

May 05, 2009 05:00 PM
by Anne Szustek
Al-Jazeera has broadcast video of a sermon by a U.S. military chaplain stationed in Afghanistan, which some have interpreted as an attempt to convert local Muslims to Christianity.

“We Hunt People for Jesus”

Arabic-language satellite news network Al-Jazeera recently aired a videotape of American soldiers attending a service at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Gary Hensley, the head U.S. military chaplain in Afghanistan, tells the evangelical Christians in attendance that as Christians, they are compelled “to be witnesses” for Jesus Christ and that “the special forces guys—they hunt men basically. We do the same things as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. We do, we hunt them down.”

The footage, taped about a year ago by former U.S. soldier and current documentary filmmaker Brian Hughes, also showed stacks of Bibles translated into Dari and Pashto, the two major languages of Afghanistan. The books were apparently sent to the air base by the home church of Sgt. John Watt, according to dialogue in the tape. Hughes told Al-Jazeera, “The only reason they would have these documents there was to distribute them to the Afghan people and I knew it was wrong, and I knew that … documenting it would be important.”

Former Afghan Prime Minister Ahmad Shah Ahmadazi has come out strongly against the perceived missionary work, telling Reuters, “We consider this act as a direct attack on our religion that will arouse Afghans' emotions to take actions against them.”

As in many Islamic countries, attempting to convert Muslims from Islam is a crime in Afghanistan, as is leaving Islam by one’s own accord.

The U.S. military says the footage shows a skewed picture of religious life at the base and that the Bibles were never distributed.

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Reaction: U.S. military says broadcast “irresponsible”

Spc. Mary L. Gonzalez, a spokesperson for the United States’ Combined Task Force 101, told military newspaper Stars and Stripes that the Bibles in question were taken away before they could be distributed, as proselytizing contravenes General Order No. 1. “The servicemember was not aware of that at the time,” Gonzalez said. Col. Gregory Julian, a spokesperson for the U.S. military detail in Afghanistan, told the paper that Al-Jazeera’s video was “very irresponsible on their part to try to contort something out of a video of a service and a Bible study class…for U.S. soldiers,” and continued that the report “could incite violence that could cost someone their life.”

Opinion & Analysis: Bibles, guns do little to improve view of U.S.

Incidents such as these only serve to reinforce the Islamic world’s apprehension towards U.S. foreign policy, argues Hollywood filmmaker Kamran Pasha in The Huffington Post. “Believers in both [Christianity and Islam] naturally seek to engage others and share their faith,” he writes. “But faith proffered at the end of a gun is not the same as spirited discourse between equals.”

The Obama administration has a formidable task in improving America’s image overseas. According to data collected before the 2008 election by Steven Kull, the director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, and published by the International Herald Tribune, “fewer than half of those polled in 22 foreign countries—46 percent—said relations between the United States and the world would improve under a President Obama.”

The 2006 Turkish movie “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,”  suggests the dim view that some U.S. allies have of U.S. behavior in the Middle East. American actor Billy Zane portrays the film’s main villain, a bloodthirsty U.S. commando stationed in Iraq who proclaims himself “the Son of God.” Gary Busey plays a Jewish-American military doctor who harvests organs from Iraqi prisoners to sell in London, New York and Tel Aviv.

The film was made to “avenge” a real-life incident on July 4, 2003, during which U.S. forces in northern Iraq handcuffed and put bags over the heads of Turkish troops who were supplying munitions to ethnic Turks fighting Kurds in the region.

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