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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Burned Bibles?

Q: Did the Obama administration burn soldiers’ Bibles?

A: The military destroyed Bibles printed in Afghan languages to prevent distribution to local Muslims. But it happened during the Bush administration.


Is this true?

BREAKING NEWS: Pentagon Burns Soldiers Bibles – Military Chaplains Attacked

The Pentagon under the Obama Administration has just acknowledged seizing and burning the privately owned Bibles of American soldiers serving in Afghanistan. The Bibles had been printed in the local Pashto and Dari languages, and sent by private donors to American Christian soldiers and chaplains, for distribution to American troops on overseas military bases during optionally-attended Christian worship services. Had the Bibles not been seized and destroyed, they could have legally been given as gifts during off-duty time to Afghani citizens who welcome our troops in their homes, as an expression of American gratitude for Afghani hospitality, promoting the democratic ideals of freedom of religion and freedom of the press. But the Muslim controlled Al Jazeera television network obtained video footage of the Bibles, held by American soldiers while listening to a chaplain on the Bagram Air Base (inside the base chapel) whose sermon encouraged outreach and personal evangelism. The American values of freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of Christian speech offended some extremist Muslim groups, and angered a small group of American atheists, who demanded the chaplain be punished for "proselytizing" because he simply repeated Jesus’ words to "Go and make disciples of all nations" in church.


The e-mail sent to us is from a longer open letter written by former Navy Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt of the "Pray in Jesus Name Project." It has been widely forwarded and posted on many Internet sites. Klingenschmitt claims that "the Pentagon, under the Obama administration, has just acknowledged seizing and burning the privately owned Bibles of American soldiers."

It’s true that one soldier’s Bibles were destroyed, but this claim is highly misleading. It strains to blame "the Obama administration" for something that happened a year earlier when George W. Bush was president, and which came to light recently.

Furthermore, contrary to Klingenschmitt’s claim that the Bibles could "legally" have been distributed to local Afghans, military officials say such distribution would have violated longstanding Pentagon policy against religious proselytizing by U.S. armed forces.

The basic facts are clear and undisputed. The Bibles were sent about a year ago to an evangelical Christian soldier serving in Afghanistan, and they were printed in two different Afghan languages, Pashto and Dari. An Army spokesman says they were sent by the soldier’s church in the U.S., unsolicited. Documentary producer Brian Hughes filmed a group prayer session during which soldiers discussed how they might give the Bibles to local Afghans. Much later, his footage became the basis for a television news report by Al Jazeera English that aired May 3 this year.

The Al Jazeera report also showed footage of Lt. Col. Gary Hensley, the chief of the U.S. military chaplains in Afghanistan, telling his congregation that followers of Jesus Christ have a responsibility "to be witnesses for him."

"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," Lt. Col. 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."

The report caused consternation in the Muslim world. Former Afghan prime minister Ahmed Shah Ahmedzai said there must be a "serious investigation" of the matter. It’s considered a crime under Afghan law to try to convert a Muslim to another faith, and one Afghan convert to Christianity was threatened with the death penalty in 2006 in a highly celebrated case.

The Pentagon quickly denounced the Al Jazeera story. News accounts quoted a Pentagon official as saying that a chaplain had confiscated the Bibles and "as far as we know, none ever got off base.” The spokesman we contacted – Army Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Daly of the Combined Joint Task Force 101 media center at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan – confirmed that "the Bibles were confiscated by the chaplain at the conclusion of the prayer service." Daly was unable to say exactly how the Bibles were disposed of, or whether they were put in regular trash disposal for burning. "It happened over a year ago, so we can’t be sure," Daly stated.

When an Al Jazeera reporter brought up the matter at a Pentagon news conference on May 4, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said: "[I]t certainly is – from the United States military’s perspective – not our position to ever push any specific kind of religion. Period."

The U.S. Central Command General Order 1 prohibits "proselytizing of any religion, faith, or practice." The video footage that Al Jazeera used shows the soldiers and a military chaplain discussing how they might give out the Bibles without violating the General Order, but they don’t arrive at any clear plan.

Footnote: In his letter, Klingenschmitt argues that the order should not have prevented distribution of the Bibles. "IT’S NOT PROSELYTIZING, IT’S EVANGELISM," he states in capital letters. We fail to see the difference in this case.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "proselytizing" as "the process of making, or seeking to make, proselytes or converts." It defines "evangelism" as "the preaching or promulgation of the Gospel," and gives an added definition: "zealous advocacy of a cause or doctrine, proselytizing zeal." So evangelism aimed at Muslims would be proselytizing for Christianity, and doing so zealously at that.

–Brooks Jackson and Justin Bank


AlJazeeraEnglish. "US soldiers’ Bible group in Afghanistan – 05 May 09." YouTube, Accessed 21 May 2009.

Garamone, Jim. "Officials Reject Allegations of Proselytizing in Afghanistan." American Forces Press Service, 4 May 2009.

Munadi, Sultan M. "Afghan Case Against Christian Convert Falters." New York Times, 26 March 2006.

"Probe call in Afghan ‘convert’ row." Al Jazeera English, 4 May 2009.