Proselytization by US Military in Afghanistan poses death threat to many

“Just as the Special Forces are hunting down al-Qaeda, we’re hunting down people for Jesus.”

I shuddered as I listened to what the uniformed man (who appeared to be leading an evangelical worship session in Baghram where the US military force is based in Afghanistan) said in firing enthusiasm to his congregation on TV the other day. What’s worrying is the fact that the congregation is made up entirely of US military personnel. This video footage taken a year ago was released on Al-Jazeera news recently.

According to Al-Jazeera, a group of US military evangelists are proselytising in Afghanistan by giving out free copies of translated bibles to the local people while on duty. While I am a strong supporter of the freedom of religion, I feel that this group of soldiers is treading on very dangerous ground.

For a start, as military personnel, any religious activity should never be part of their mandate; may it be for personal or professional reasons.

UPDATED The US Military Code of Conduct for Afghanistan specifically prohibits proselytizing of any religion, faith or practices and it’s shocking that this group of evangelists have boldly ignored and violated this code, also known as General Order No.1B [specifically Rule 2(k)].

When asked whether the soldiers are aware of this code, an officer who is set to become a chaplain answered, “you can’t proselytize but you can give gift.” He added, “I bought a carpet and then I gave the guy a bible after I conducted my business.”

This appears to be their modus operandi as video footage showed copies of bibles being taken out from underneath a box of supplies that were distributed to the local community in Parwan province.

The Provincial District Governor expressed her shock when she discovered six bibles at the bottom of what would appear as innocent military aid supplies. She said that she hastily burned five of the bibles out of fear and handed one to the local police authority.

Having lived and worked in Afghanistan, I know for a fact that military soldiers rarely take off their uniform even when they are conducting personal commercial transaction. It is common to see soldiers strolling along the local markets with their rifles strapped on their backs while haggling with Afghans over carpets and other knick-knacks. Even if a bible is intended to be a personal gift, it will not be perceived as such.

The US’s highest ranking military officer later confirmed that it is not the US military’s position to promote any specific religion. The US Military Spokesperson told Al-Jazeera that they have confiscated bibles from those who were involved in such activities and some soldiers who appeared in the video have been reprimanded. The US Pentagon, however, has not issued any statement on this.

Three years ago, Abdel Rahman, an Afghan, was sentenced to death when he converted to Christianity. In 2007, twenty-three South Korean missionaries were held hostage by the Taliban and two were killed. A local journalist was sentenced to death last year for spreading information against Islam. A few years ago, cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in Denmark and allegations of US troops mistreating the Quran in Guantanamo Bay sparked off violent and bloody demonstrations which killed hundreds of civilians. All this clearly indicates the intolerance of religious conversion and blasphemy in Afghanistan. What the US military force is now doing, is to increase and reinforce the vulnerability of local Afghans and foreigners to further threats by religious fundamentalists.

As a UN Human Rights Officer in Afghanistan several years ago, I know that fundamental human rights are issues which have to be dealt with delicately, if not cautiously. It’s not just about serving a prison sentence if one is convicted of adultery, spreading information which is against Islam or apostasy. The penalty is usually death and because there is no proper rule of law system, chances of getting a sentence overturned or obtaining justice is close to zero. Even if such a system is in place, religious fundamentalists will not hesitate to take matters into their own hands.

Shortly after the release of this news on Al-Jazeera, the Taliban released a message on their website threatening “harsh reprisals” and targeting Pope Benedict XVI and Christians if the former does not intervene to stop Christians from proselytizing in Afghanistan.

There is an urgent need for the US to tackle this issue immediately for five reasons.

Firstly, it is necessary for its military force to re-gain credibility and trust from Afghans when its reputation has been sorely compromised over the last few years with the increasing cases of civilian deaths during military operations. Confirmation of torture and countless number of human rights violations on Guantamo Bay prisoners do nothing to increase the respect of the Talibans towards the US. Ahmed Shah Ahmedzai, a former Afghan Prime Minister told Al-Jazeera that such activity is damaging for the diplomatic relations between the two countries. He urged the US to conduct a serious investigation now that this information has come to the public’s knowledge. If the US military forces want to remain in Afghanistan to help restore peace and security, proselytizing activities will only counter the objectives of its operation.

Secondly, such proselytizing activity will only jeopardize the lives of Afghans who may or may not be influenced by it, but the mere possession of bibles will automatically increase the suspicion of religious fundamentalists. And let’s face it, the Talibans have no qualms in taking any drastic actions against those who are suspected of going against Islam, even when it comes to killing. Sayed Aalam Uddin Asser of the Islamic Front for Peace and Understanding in Kabul told Al-Jazeera, “It’s a national security issue … our constitution says nothing can take place in Afghanistan against Islam. If people come and propagate other religions which have no followers in Afghanistan [then] it creates problems for the people, for peace, for stability.”

Thirdly, hardcore religious fundamentalists like the Taliban reserve no room for reasoning nor negotiation. Any US citizen or those who have any association with them, may it be by appearance, political, social or cultural in nature, can be considered an enemy. As such, this poses a threat to those who may not necessarily have anything to do with proselytizing.

The message posted on the Taliban website claimed that dozens of Christian missionaries are proselytizing in Afghanistan under the guise of humanitarian non-governmental organizations. It also claimed that these groups are collaborating directly with American and other foreign troops in Afghanistan. According to them, “They are taking advantage of the war and of needy Afghans, who are driven towards the religious deviance of these groups.”

From a perspective of those in the thick and thin of it (commentary by unnamed source), it is felt that there is a right and responsible time and place for proselytizing and this (in a country like Afghanistan) is not the right time or place. Such activities and news place all civilians working in Afghanistan in greater danger.

As the Taliban or Anti-Government Elements (AGE) do not make a distinction between international military forces, UN or NGOs, all of which are regarded as “international entities”, such reports make all foreigners a potential target. Also, in this regard, civilians are more vulnerable as by their very nature, they do not carry arms (rightly so) and do not travel in huge military convoys. This does not mean that they should be carrying arms but it means that civilians are easier targets and hence more vulnerable towards being kidnapped and killed – there has been an escalation of security incidents against NGO workers by AGEs in the past few years.

Fourthly, one cannot dispel the harm that has been caused by the US military’s engagement in proselytizing on genuine efforts and work by humanitarian organizations. While engagement in humanitarian activities to “win the hearts and minds” of local population by military operations has been a common practice to gain the trust and acceptance of local civilians (in essence, such activities are prohibited by the UN Security Council and handbooks of military coalition forces), the way these activities have been conducted, not to mention the boundaries that have been crossed by whatever hidden religious agenda; have all contributed to the shrinking of humanitarian space in Afghanistan. The US military force has not only reduced the integrity of humanitarian workers, but also rendered them as dangerous enemies who must be eradicated by all means.

Finally, when the US decided to send more troops into Afghanistan, it should keep in mind that its main objective and priority is to restore peace and security and this includes reducing civilian casualties during its military operations. With the increasing number of incidents and controversies surrounding the deaths of civilians – in which the US has often denied responsibility – indirectly contributing to further threats on civilians through proselytizing activities will not reduce the onus. The US must start to make serious effort to protect the security of civilians and not just pay lip service.

If the US does not wish to aggravate the already fragile state of security in Afghanistan, President Obama needs to do something about this immediately. If none of the above arguments holds any form of persuasion, proselytization is still a violation of any military code of conduct and for very good reasons too. Any religious belief or activities should never be associated with military operations.

These evangelists are in Afghanistan as soldiers of the United States of America, not God.

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Ka Ea used to be a globe trotter. She has lived in Timor Leste and Afghanistan while working as a civic education and human rights officers for the United Nations. She then tried to be a full time housewife in Ethiopia and Cambodia but failed miserably. These days, Ka Ea spends most of her time at the Pusat Rakyat LoyarBurok, Ananda Bhavan and Hulu Langat. When she's not there, she can be found lying on the couch at home with two of her best friends watching So You Think You Can Dance. Among the trio, only one can really dance.

Posted on 10 May 2009. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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