World News

U.S. denies letting troops convert Afghans

KABUL (Reuters) - The U.S. military denied on Monday it has allowed soldiers to try to convert Afghans to Christianity, after a television network showed pictures of soldiers with bibles translated into local languages.

General Order Number 1 from the U.S. military’s Central Command forbids active duty troops, including those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, from trying to convert people, considered a crime in many Muslim countries.

“It certainly is, from the United States military’s perspective, not our position to ever push any specific kind of religion, period,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.

Qatar-based Al Jazeera television showed footage filmed last year of a church service at Bagram, the main U.S. base north of the Afghan capital Kabul, and a bible study class where soldiers had a stack of bibles in the local languages, Pashtu and Dari.

A military chaplain was shown delivering a sermon to other soldiers, saying: “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.”

A U.S. military spokeswoman, Major Jennifer Willis, said the comments from the sermon were taken out of context and chaplains were told to make clear to soldiers they could not proselytize while serving.

Former prime minister Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai told Reuters the footage appeared to show “that in a foreign military base inside our country, people work against our religion.”

“We consider this act as a direct attack on our religion that will arouse Afghans’ emotions to take actions against them.”

Violence in Afghanistan this year has reached its highest level since the Islamist Taliban were ousted in 2001, despite increasing numbers of U.S. and other foreign troops.

Willis said the bibles had been mailed to a soldier by a church in the United States and were never distributed. Officials said the incident occurred in May 2008.

“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,” she said.

A U.S. defense official in Washington described the soldier as a sergeant who was an evangelical Christian. He presented the bibles to a class attended by officers and chaplains.

Chaplains quickly alerted the chain of command, which ordered the bibles confiscated before they could be distributed, said the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Trying to convert Muslims to any other faith is a crime in Afghanistan. An Afghan man who converted to Christianity was sentenced to death for apostasy in 2006 but was allowed to leave the country after an international uproar.

Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul and David Morgan in Washington, editing by Alan Elsner