A video that shows U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan discussing ways to preach Christianity to the largely Muslim population there has opened a new round of questions over heavy handed evangelical influence in the military.
The footage was shot about a year ago by Brian Hughes, a documentary film maker, and in May was featured on the English version of Al Jazeera, a worldwide Arabic news network. It shows a band of soldiers stationed at Bagram openly discussing ways to get around military regulations that ban proselytizing by soldiers in Afghanistan.
A military regulation known as General Order Number One forbids soldiers from proselytizing the Afghan population. Afghanistan is overwhelmingly Muslim, and U.S. military officials say they do not want to increase societal tensions or create the image that the United States is on a mission to change Afghanistan’s religion.
The video shows piles of Bibles lying on the floor. They are printed in Pashto and Dari, two dialects common in the country.
One man, Sgt. Jon Watt, is heard saying, “I also want to praise God because my church collected some money to get Bibles for Afghanistan. They came and sent the money out.”
The tape also depicts two military chaplains. From the conversation on the tape, it’s clear that the soldiers know their actions are questionable, but are looking for ways to proceed.
On the tape, one participant, Capt. Emmit Furner, one of the military chaplains, asks the crowd, “Do we know what it means to proselytize?”
A soldier replies, “It is General Order Number One.”
At this point Watt, who is training to be a chaplain, jumps in with, “You can’t proselytize, but you can give gifts.”
He then tells a story about buying a rug from a merchant in Iraq and then handing him a Bible.
Critics, including Americans United and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), contend that the tape is indicative of a larger problem in the military.
The Al Jazeera report included footage of Lt. Col. Gary Hensley, who until recently was the Army command chaplain in Afghanistan, preaching at a highly charged religious service. During the event, Hensley told soldiers they have a responsibility “to be witnesses for him [Christ].”
“The special forces guys, they hunt men basically,” Hensley says. “We do the same things as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. We do, we hunt them down. Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them into the kingdom. That’s what we do, that’s our business.”
Military officials insist the situation is under control. They say the Bibles were confiscated before being distributed and that some of the people on the tape have been disciplined.
However, an Army spokesman, Col. Greg Julian, went on to attack Al Jazeera for airing the video, remarking, “Most of this is taken out of context…. This is irresponsible and inappropriate journalism.”
Americans United and MRFF are urging military officials not to ignore the problem. As Harper’s magazine recently reported, during the Reagan administration, rules governing how chaplains are proportioned by denomination were changed. This led to an increase in the number of evangelical chaplains coming into the military.
Some of these chaplains see their chief duty as converting military personnel to their version of Christianity and reject the traditional role of a chaplain, which is to respect all faiths and facilitate worship for many types of believers.
MeLinda Morton, a former Air Force chaplain, told Harper’s the problem is real.
“Evangelicals looked at the military and said, ‘This is a mission field,’” Morton said. “They wanted to send their missionaries to the military, and for the military itself to become missionaries to the world.”