Al Jazeera Strikes Back at Pentagon

Releases Footage of U.S. Soldiers' 'Bible Study' in Afghanistan

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The network released unedited tapes of the ‘hunt for Jesus’ one day after the Pentagon accused it of being ‘irresponsible’ for its initial report.

Hours after Al Jazeera first broadcast a video showing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan being instructed by the military’s top chaplain in the country to “hunt people for Jesus” as they spread Christianity to the overwhelmingly Muslim population, the Pentagon shot back. It charged that Al Jazeera had “grossly misrepresent[ed] the truth.” Col. Greg Julian, told Al Jazeera: “Most of this is taken out of context … this is irresponsible and inappropriate journalism.”

Now, Al Jazeera and the man who filmed the controversial material are striking back.

The network has just released unedited and unaltered footage of U.S. soldiers in ‘bible study’ in Afghanistan. Jazeera describes it as “Extended footage shot by Brian Hughes, a U.S. documentary maker and former member of the U.S. military who spent several days in Bagram near Kabul.”

In Al Jazeera’s original report, Hughes addressed the fact that soldiers had imported bibles translated into Pashto and Dari. “[U.S. soldiers] weren’t talking about learning how to speak Dari or Pashto, by reading the Bible and using that as the tool for language lessons,” Hughes told Al Jazeera. “The only reason they would have these documents there was to distribute them to the Afghan people. And I knew it was wrong, and I knew that filming it … documenting it would be important.”

Regarding allegations that the sermon of the military’s top chaplain in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-Colonel Gary Hensley, where he instructs soldiers to “hunt people for Jesus” was taken out of context, Hughes said in a statement, “Any contention by the military that his words are purposefully taken out of context to alter the tone or meaning of his sermon is absolutely false.”

Hughes is completely standing by the accuracy of Al Jazeera’s report. Here is Hughes’s statement:

On Sunday, May 3, the Al Jazeera English network and I made an agreement to produce a broadcast segment from a rough cut of my documentary film. This opportunity came after a May 2009 Harper’s magazine cover story called “Jesus Killed Mohammed.” While he researched and prepared that article, I allowed the author Jeff Sharlet to view the work-in-progress documentary. Sharlet’s article brought the film to Al Jazeera English’s attention.

My documentary, titled The Word and the Warriors, is inspired by a personal experience I had while serving as a combat flight crew member during the first Gulf War. During a very difficult and emotional time at war, an Army chaplain provided me comfort and counsel. I will never forget the important advice or the man who – without questioning my own faith – helped me at a time of need.

For two-and-a-half years, I have been researching and producing this film. I have traveled the world, interviewing both military service members and civilians about the important role of these religious leaders/military officers.

During April/May 2008, I went to Afghanistan. With the assistance and full cooperation of the U.S. Army, I was allowed to film at Bagram Air Field. During that time, I was always wearing press credentials, and I was always accompanied by a media liaison while filming.

The media liaison staff knew everything I filmed and – as I was told by them – they filed reports every evening about what I had filmed. It was my primary media liaison, an Army NCO, who – on my first day – invited me to meet LTC Gary Hensley. Hensley, the ranking chaplain in Afghanistan talked to me off camera expressing a concern he had about allowing me to film his chaplains.

At the conclusion of the discussion, he agreed that I would be allowed to embed with his chaplains and invited me to film several hours of religious services.

Those hours at the Enduring Faith Chapel included his own sermon at a service called Chapel Next. With the exception of a few minutes I could not film, because I was reloading my camera or moving to position for another shot, I videotaped Hensley’s entire sermon.

Any contention by the military that his words are purposefully taken out of context to alter the tone or meaning of his sermon is absolutely false.

In recent press statements, the military also contends that – in the footage depicting the Afghan-language (Dari and Pashto) bibles – a cut was made before “it would have shown that the chaplain instructed that the Bibles not be distributed.” This is a false statement. The chaplain – as seen in the footage before the cut – instructs the group to be careful and reiterates the definition of General Order #1. After this cut he begins to organize the group for the evening’s bible study lessons.

Finally, and in my opinion most important, is the fact that EVERY FRAME of the rough cut from Bagram was provided to the U.S. Army Public Affairs Office in advance of this release. On Thursday, April 30 at approximately 1 pm EST, the Army took possession of a DVD with this footage by accepting a FedEx from me. Since Al Jazeera English first aired the piece Sunday, May 3 at 10pm EST, the Army had every frame of this rough cut for more than 80 hours.


Jeremy Scahill is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

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