Claims by an Arab news network that U.S. soldiers at a base in Afghanistan distributed Bibles and tried to convert Afghans are false, Pentagon officials said Monday.
"The Bibles were never distributed. They were removed by the chaplains," Col. Gregory Julian, a spokesman for U.S. Forces, told CNN.
Al Jazeera English, a television news service based in Qatar, released a video showing evangelical Christian soldiers at the U.S. military air base at Bagram, Afghanistan, with a stack of Bibles translated into local Pashto and Dari languages. The Bibles were mailed from Sgt. James Watt's hometown church.
Al Jazeera reported that the U.S. soldiers were on a clear mission to proselytize, which is in direct violation of U.S. Central Command's General Order Number 1.
Col. Julian said the video edited out footage showing the chaplain instructing the soldiers not to distribute the Bibles.
Spokeswoman Major Jennifer Willis at Bagram confirmed "that the Bibles shown on Al Jazeera's clip were, in fact, collected by the chaplains and later destroyed."
"They were never distributed," Willis said, according to Reuters.
The Al Jazeera report also features a Sunday worship service at Bagram where Lt. Colonel Gary Hensley, the chief U.S. chaplain at the air base, tells the congregants – mainly soldiers – that their commission is to be witnesses for Christ.
"The special forces guys, they hunt men, basically. We do the same things as Christians. We hunt people for Jesus," Hensley says. "Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them into the kingdom. That's what we do; that's our business."
Col. Julian said Hensley did not tell the congregation to try to convert Afghans and that he did nothing wrong.
A Defense Department official also noted at a Pentagon briefing, "American servicemembers are allowed to hold religious services."
"The clip shows one of those services with an American chaplain leading a religious service for American servicemembers. In it, he spoke generically about the evangelical faith. That's all there was to it," the official said, according to American Forces Press Service.
The video footage of the evangelical soldiers was shot by independent documentary filmmaker Brian Hughes last year.
Col. Julian is concerned the Al Jazeera report may trigger more violence in the region.
"This was irresponsible and dangerous journalism sensationalizing year-old footage of a religious service for U.S. soldiers on a U.S. base and inferring that troops are evangelizing to Afghans," Julian said, according to CNN.
In Afghanistan, where over 99 percent of the population is Muslim, trying to convert Muslims to another religion is a crime. Conversion from Islam is considered apostasy and could be punishable by death.