Military commanders may want their troops to pray a little less


AMERICA: Some US soldiers are allegedly trying to convert Afghans to Christianity

THURSDAY WAS the national day of prayer in the US and, like all his predecessors since Harry Truman, US president Barack Obama issued a proclamation calling on all Americans "to pray in thanksgiving for our freedoms and blessings".

In Afghanistan, however, US military commanders may wish their subordinates would pray a little less - or at least keep their religious views to themselves.

Former Afghan prime minister Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai has called for an investigation into allegations that US soldiers are trying to convert Afghans to Christianity - an activity that is against US military regulations and is a crime in Afghanistan.

"We consider this act as a direct attack on our religion that will arouse Afghans' emotions to take actions against them," he said.

His comments followed a broadcast on al-Jazeera of footage showing soldiers at Bagram air base discussing how to distribute Bibles translated into Pashtu and Dari.

The Taliban picked up on the report, declaring on one of its websites that converting Afghans to Christianity was part of the US war plan and urging all Muslims to resist.

"The Islamic Emirate strongly urges mujahideen, religious scholars and all religious circles to seriously monitor such moves and activities of the invaders and crusaders and not allow anyone to promulgate and spread the abolished religions apart from Islam in a Muslim country," it said.

The US military denies that it allows soldiers to proselytise and says that all the Bibles discussed in the video have been confiscated. US central command's general order number one explicitly forbids military personnel from trying to convert anyone to any religion.

"That specific case involved a soldier who brought in a donation of translated Bibles that were sent to his personal address by his home church.

"He showed them to the group and the chaplain explained that he cannot distribute them," military spokeswoman Maj Jennifer Willis said.

"The translated Bibles were never distributed as far as we know, because the soldier understood that if he distributed them he would be in violation of general order one, and he would be subject to punishment."

The al-Jazeera report highlighted a culture among some military chaplains and senior officers that liberals find disturbing and showed Lt Col Gary Hensley, the chief US military chaplain in Afghanistan, calling on soldiers to hunt people for Jesus.

"The special forces guys, they hunt men, basically. We do the same things as Christians: we hunt people for Jesus. We do," he said.

"We hunt them down, get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them into kingdom. Right? That's what we do. That's our business," he said.

Former air force officer Mikey Weinstein, who heads the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said this week that attitudes such as Hensley's were ubiquitous within the US military.

"What al-Jazeera released is nothing new. We've been talking about it forever.

"But there are hundreds of thousands of translated - into Arabic, Pashtu, Dari - biblical tracts, Bibles, coins," he said.

"There are so many para-church organisations: the Worldwide Military Baptist Missions, the Soldiers' Bible Ministry, the Campus Crusades Military Ministry. You can't count them all. This is how bad it is. And, you know, docile and supine America needs to wake up, because what we're doing, we look exactly like the Crusaders of 1096 to the Iraqis and now the Afghans."

In the current issue of Harper'smagazine, Jeff Sharlet reports that fundamentalist Christian chaplains have come to dominate the US military in recent decades.

More than two-thirds of the military's 2,900 chaplains are affiliated with evangelical or Pentecostal denominations, many of them trained at fundamentalist Bible colleges, according to the magazine.

The Officers' Christian Fellowship has been growing by 3 per cent a year.

Sharlet reports that it now has 15,000 members active at 80 per cent of US military bases.

Few Americans see anything sinister in Christian officers coming together in a spiritual group but the fellowship has in recent years adopted a strident tone that troubles some outsiders.

Sharlet quotes from one of its Bible studies, Mission Accomplished, that appears to call on Christian soldiers to work towards a spiritual conquest of the US military itself.

"We need to press ahead obediently," the study says, "not allowing the opposition, all of which is spearheaded by Satan, to keep us from the mission of reclaiming territory for Christ in the military."