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Kabul Discounts Report Of U.S. Soldiers Distributing Bibles

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen
KABUL (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military says it confiscated and destroyed a shipment of Christian Bibles sent to a U.S. soldier at a base in Afghanistan about a year ago to ensure that troops did not breach regulations against proselytizing.

The Bibles -- published in the Pashto and Dari languages -- are the cause of controversy in Afghanistan after Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television recently broadcast a report about the shipment. That report suggested that some U.S. soldiers had, on their own accord, been trying to distribute Bibles to Afghans. The report also questioned whether U.S. soldiers violated the laws of both Afghanistan and the U.S. military by doing so.

Siamak Heravi, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, downplayed the significance of the report. Heravi told RFE/RL that Kabul would not tolerate policies by foreign forces that allow the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials aimed at converting Afghan Muslims.

"We read this report. First of all, we strongly deny it. No power that is based in Afghanistan would be allowed to [do this]," Heravi said. "We are discussing this issue. But according to preliminary reports we got from U.S. authorities, this report is false and hypocritical and baseless."

Under Afghanistan's internationally backed constitution, it is a crime in the country to try to convert a Muslim to another religious faith. Afghan Muslims who do convert to another religion face a possible death sentence under Afghan law.

Wary of the sensitivities of the issue, U.S. Central Command has issued General Order No. 1, which forbids troops on active duty from trying to convert people to another religion. That rule applies to all U.S. soldiers based in Afghanistan and Iraq.

No Proselytizing

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, reiterated at a Pentagon press conference on May 4 that the U.S. military does not allow proselytizing.

"It certainly is -- from the United States military's perspective -- not our position to ever push any specific kind of religion. Period," Mullen said.

Indeed, a U.S. military spokeswoman at Bagram Air Field said on May 5 that the Bibles shown in the Al-Jazeera report had been sent about a year ago by a church in the United States to one particular U.S. soldier who is an evangelical Christian.

Major Jennifer Willis says she can now confirm that the Bibles seen in the report were collected by U.S. military chaplains and destroyed. She says none of the Bibles was distributed.

Al-Jazeera's footage of the Bible study session -- and the stack of green and blue Bibles -- were filmed by an American documentary maker who later passed the materials on to Al-Jazeera.

The Al-Jazeera report also quoted U.S. military officials who said the footage was being taken out of context. Those officials also stressed that there is no effort by the U.S. military to send soldiers out to proselytize to Afghans.