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Military Entangled in 'Extreme' Missionary Christian Reality TV Show

Saturday, December 13, 2008

By Jason Leopold

The Pentagon has once again come under fire by a military watchdog organization for its involvement in the production of two cable programs, one that featured two so-called “extreme” missionaries embedded with a U.S. Army unit in Afghanistan trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

The popular reality series, "Travel the Road," aired on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and featured Will Decker and Tim Scott, two so-called "extreme" missionaries who travel the globe to “preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth and encourage the church to be active in the Great Commission.”

The other cable program green-lit by the Pentagon is “God’s Soldier,” which aired in September on the Military Channel, and was filmed at Forward Operating Base McHenry in Hawijah, Iraq. It features an Army chaplain openly promoting fundamentalist Christianity to active-duty U.S. soldiers in Iraq in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a watchdog organization, first disclosed details about the cable programs in the group’s weekly newsletter on Friday. The group plans to amend a federal lawsuit it filed against the Department of Defense earlier this year, currently in federal District Court in Kansas City, Kansas to “include these despicable unconstitutional promotions of fundamentalist Christianity in the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan,” said MRFF founder and president Mikey Weinstein.

Part of the second season of “Travel the Road” was filmed on location in Afghanistan and aired in April 2006, where Decker and Scott were embedded with the Army, and shows numerous scenes of the men accompanying U.S. Army soldiers on patrol. The missionaries are also filmed evangelizing the local Afghans by distributing New Testaments to them in their native Darri language.

In one scene, an Army Chaplain named Capt. Brad Hanna of the Oklahoma National Guard, talks about the possibility of a “revival” in Afghanistan and says he frequently speaks to Afghans about converting to Christianity. Hanna was made a full-time support chaplain for the Oklahoma National Guard after he returned from Afghanistan.

Additionally, Decker and Scott prominently cite SSgt. Sheldon Hoyt, who was stationed in Afghanistan with the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment, as playing a hands-on role in helping the missionaries facilitate their proselytizing as opposed to simply being a tour guide of sorts.

In sanctioning Decker and Scott’s work, the Pentagon appears to have committed numerous constitutional violations as well as breached military regulations such as United States Central Command's General Order 1-A, which strictly prohibits any proselytization in the Middle Eastern theater of operations.

Earlier this year, U.S. military personnel launched a major initiative to convert thousands of Iraqi citizens to Christianity also by distributing Bibles and other fundamentalist Christian literature translated into Arabic to Iraqi Muslims.

An article published on the website of Mission Network News reported that Bible Pathway Ministries, a fundamentalist Christian organization, disclosed that the organization provided thousands of a special military edition of its Daily Devotional Bible study book to members of the 101st Airborne Division of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, currently stationed in Iraq.

The project "came into being when a chaplain in Iraq (who has since finished his tour) requested some books from Bible Pathway Ministries (BPM).”

“The resulting product is a 6"x9" 496-page illustrated book with embossed cover containing 366 daily devotional commentaries, maps, charts, and additional helpful information," the Mission Network News report said.

Chief Warrant Officer Rene Llanos of the 101st Airborne told Mission Network News, “the soldiers who are patrolling and walking the streets are taking along this copy, and they're using it to minister to the local residents.”

"Our division is also getting ready to head toward Afghanistan, so there will be copies heading out with the soldiers," Llanos said. “We need to pray for protection for our soldiers as they patrol and pray that God would continue to open doors. The soldiers are being placed in strategic places with a purpose. They're continuing to spread the Word.”

Karen Hawkins, a BPM official, said military chaplains "were trying to encourage [soldiers] to be in the Word everyday because they're in a very dangerous situation, and they need that protection."

The distribution of the Bibles and Christian literature came at the same time that U.S. Marines guarding the entrance to the city of Fallujah handed out “witnessing coins” to Sunni Muslims entering the city that read in Arabic on one side: "Where will you spend eternity?” and "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16" on the other.

But it’s the military chaplains who have been criticized for allegedly force-feeding soldiers a form of fundamentalist Christianity originating from highly controversial, apocalyptic "End Times" evangelists and their mega-churches. Evangelical Christians have become such a dominating presence in the military’s chaplain corps that the Air Force held a four-day Spiritual Fitness Conference at Hilton Hotel in Colorado Springs in 2005 for chaplains and their families.

The U.S. Constitution says the federal government is prohibited from using the machinery of the state to promote any single religion. But, disturbingly, “God’s Soldier,” produced with the full co-operation of the 2-27 Infantry Battalion "Wolfhounds,” and “Travel the Road” comes off more like an advertisement for fundamentalist Christianity and a promotional tool for the faith.

“God’s Soldier” was co-produced by Jerusalem Productions, a British production company whose "primary aim is to increase understanding and knowledge of the Christian religion and to promote Christian values, via the broadcast media, to as wide an audience as possible."

Before “God’s Soldier” aired on Sept. 10, the Discovery Channel, which owns the Military Channel, advertised the program by stating that it would feature several Army Chaplains from a wide variety of denominations discussing their work in the military.

“Follow a group of U.S. Army Chaplains from different faiths on a tour of duty in Iraq as they comfort wounded and dying soldiers, reassure panicked and depressed soldiers, as well debriefing those soldiers that return from their tours of duty," the marketing literature for “God’s Soldier” said.

Instead, “God’s Soldier,” zeroed in on one chaplain, Capt.. Charles Popov, who appears in the first scene of the program in a godlike pose looking down upon the military base and urging soldier to attend Christian Bible study.

"Hey this is God,” Chaplain Popov says. “Come to Bible study tonight at 1900. Purpose Driven Life. You only have 25,000 days in your life, and probably half of it's gone.”

The author of the book, “Purpose Driven Life,” that Popov referenced is Rick Warren, the leader of a fundamentalist mega-church in Southern California. In a recent interview with Fox News pundit Sean Hannity, Warren said, "the Bible says that evil cannot be negotiated with. It has to just be stopped.... In fact, that is the legitimate role of government. The Bible says that God puts government on earth to punish evildoers. Not good-doers. Evildoers."

MRFF’s research has found that “The Purpose Driven Life” is second only to the Bible itself as the most widely promoted religious book to our military.

In another scene from “God’s Soldier,” Popov is featured blessing a group of soldiers about to go out on a patrol.

"I pray that you would give them the ability to exterminate the enemy and to accomplish the task that they're been sent forth by God and country to do. In Christ's name I pray. Amen,” Popov says as he leads the group of soldiers in prayer. “Every soldier should know Romans 13, that the government is set up by God, and the magistrate, or the one who wields the sword -- you have not swords but 50 cals and [unintelligible] like that -- does not yield it in vain because the magistrate has been called, as you, to execute wrath upon those who do evil."

Popov is studying toward a Brigade Chaplain supervisory position and the rank of Major at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina's US Army Chaplain School in the Army C-4 class.

Another clip from “God’s Soldier” contains what appears to be a violation of strict regulations governing Army chapels: a large cross-shaped window covering about a third of the height of the door.

"The actions of Army chaplain Popov are abominable beyond measure even when slightly judged by constitutional standards,” said Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. “Look, damn it, let’s call it what it is. [Popov] and his approving Army superiors are the quintessential poster-child for the treason; yes treason, of aiding and abetting our enemies.

“Indeed, they are creating the most prolific recruiting weapon ever imagined for the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists comprising al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the insurrectionists and the Jihadists. Chaplain Popov and his lickspittle Army lapdogs have tragically painted the wretched perception that this conflict is between the righteous armies of Jesus against the evildoers of all Islam. This conflict of religious extermination has happened before. They called it The Crusades.”

Since he launched his watchdog organization four years ago, Weinstein said he and MRFF have been contacted by more than 10,000 active duty and retired members of the U.S. Armed Forces, many of who served or serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who identify themselves as Christians. They told Weinstein that they were “severely” pressured by their military chain of command to convert to Christianity.

Weinstein, the author of "With God on Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military." and a former White House attorney under Ronald Reagan, general counsel H. Ross Perot and an Air Force Judge Advocate (JAG), has exposed scores of cases in which the Department of Defense has promoted and sanctioned fundamentalist Christian proselytizing among U.S. soldiers in violation of the U.S. Constitution, established federal case law and military regulations.

The most egregious case of the Pentagon’s close ties with Christian fundamentalist groups was formally investigated by the Pentagon’s inspector general, as a result of a highly publicized complaint lodged by Weinstein’s group, in 2007 in which high-ranking Defense Department officials appeared in a promotional video in uniform promoting the fundamentalist organization Christian Embassy.

In a 45-page inspector general report, Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack Catton, Army Brig. Gen. Bob Caslen, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, Maj. Gen. Peter Sutton, and a colonel and lieutenant colonel whose names were redacted were found to have "improperly endorsed and participated with a non-Federal entity while in uniform."

Caslen was formerly the deputy director for political-military affairs for the war on terrorism, directorate for strategic plans and policy, joint staff. He was reassigned to the prestigious position of West Point Command of Cadets overseeing the 4,200 cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point. Caslen told DOD investigators he agreed to appear in the video upon learning other senior Pentagon officials had been interviewed for the promotional video.

At least one senior military official defended their actions, according to the inspector general's report, saying the "Christian Embassy had become a 'quasi-Federal entity,' since the DOD had endorsed the organization to General Officers for over 25 years."

“These unconscionable efforts by the leadership of our American armed forces to portray our United States military as the avenging Army of Jesus must stop here and now,” Weinstein said. “It is directly leading to the emboldening of our enemy which, in turn, is maiming and killing brave American service men and women.


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