After I wrote a piece here back in December exposing the U.S. Army's participation in the Christian reality TV show Travel the Road, the organization I work for, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), was contacted by ABC News Nightline.
The seven minute segment about Travel the Road that aired on Nightline on Monday night briefly mentioned MRFF's allegations of the U.S. military's violations in the production of the Travel the Road episodes filmed in Afghanistan, with the majority of the segment being taken up by clips from the series and interviews with its stars, Tim Scott and Will Decker, two evangelical Christian missionaries who travel to remote, and often dangerous, parts of the world to fulfill their two part mission to "1. Vigorously spread the gospel to people who are either cut off from active mission work, or have never heard the gospel," and "2. Produce dynamic media content to display the life of missions, and thus, through these episodic series electrify a new generation to accomplish the Great Commission," the mandate from Matthew 28:19 to "Go and make disciples of all nations."
The last three episodes of the second season of Travel the Road were filmed in Afghanistan, with the aid and participation of the U.S. Army. Multiple violations of military regulations, Department of Defense regulations governing embedded journalists, and the laws of Afghanistan were evident in these episodes of the series, which airs on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and, according to a Travel the Road publication, is viewed by more than three million people worldwide.
The part about the missionaries being embedded with U.S. troops is at about 4:15 into the Nightline segment.
In an accompanying article on the ABC News website, "Missionaries Face Death, Criticism to Preach," the missionaries confirmed what MRFF had suspected -- that the U.S. Army was fully aware that these were missionaries, not journalists, and that they were there to proselytize Afghan citizens and film their activities for a Christian reality TV show. Yet the Army, in complete disregard of the procedures, vetting process, and credential requirements for embedding journalists, allowed them to be embedded. Not only were they allowed to be embedded, but somehow managed to do this with none of the prior arrangements required by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (OASD(PA). As is documented in the clips in the video at the end of this post, these two evangelists just waltzed into Afghanistan with no contacts whatsoever, hooked up with some military personnel, and within three days were embedded as journalists with an Oklahoma National Guard unit. When ABC News attempted to obtain the records of the embedding, they were told by the Army that it no longer had the records.
From the ABC News article:
"When ABC News contacted the Army in Afghanistan, it said it no longer have the records of the evangelicals' embed, which took place more than four years ago. The missionaries said they weren't accompanied by soldiers when they handed out Bibles, but Decker and Scott said the military was aware of the purpose of their trip.
"'It wasn't like we were hiding in the back saying we're going to preach,' Scott said. 'They knew what we were doing. We told them that we were born again Christians, we're here doing ministry, we shoot for this TV station and we want to embed and see what it was like.
"'We were interviewing the chaplains and we talked to them. We spoke at the services and things like that. So we did do our mission being over there as far as being able to document what the soldiers go through, what it's like in Afghanistan,' he said. 'So I could say that we were on a secular mission as well as far as documenting. I would say we were news reporters as well, we were delivering news of what was actually happening there, but we were also there to document the Christian side.'
"He added that as Christian journalists they should have the same rights as other networks, and that the military didn't facilitate their actions or preaching.
"'If, for example, if I wasn't allowed on base I would feel like my freedoms were being restricted. Just because we were Christians and I am documenting for a Christian reality TV series, that I should have the same right?' Scott said. 'That's like saying I'm not going to let al-Jazeera report anything because their reporter is very religious.'
Tim Scott's comments comparing their rights to those of al-Jazeera are, of course, ridiculous. First of all, al-Jazeera is not an American news agency being embedded by the U.S. Department of Defense. But, not surprisingly, Scott is playing the Christian discrimination card. Second, embedding would obviously never have anything whatsoever to do with the religion of the journalists because no legitimate journalists are going into the war zone as a means to their end of converting the local residents, as Scott and Decker admittedly were. Journalists are there for one reason, and one reason only -- to report the news. Third, being embedded is not a "right" for any news organization or journalist. Approval is subject to the discretion of the Department of Defense. And, finally, approval for embeds is given to news organizations, not individuals. The Travel the Road missionaries were not representing any news organization.
Section 3 of the OASD-PA document containing the "Guidance, Policies, and Procedures on Embedding News Media" is very clear on who can be embedded, and Travel the Road meets none of the criteria.
Section 3.A. states:
"The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (OASD(PA) is the central agency for managing and vetting media embeds to include allocating embed slots to media organizations. ... Embed opportunities will be assigned to media organizations, not to individual reporters. ..."
Section 3.D. states:
"Freelance media will be authorized to embed if they are selected by a news organization as their embed representative."
Section 3.B. allows for local media to apply to be embedded with a unit from their area, the procedure being for the local media to contact the particular unit's Public Affairs Office, which then has to nominate them to OASD(PA). One Oklahoma journalist who wanted to cover for the local newspapers the very same Oklahoma National Guard unit that the Travel the Road missionaries were embedded with, actually wrote about the many weeks he had to wait for his approval to be embedded after his initial contact with the state's National Guard Public Affairs Office. But those missionaries were somehow able to get embedded within just a few days with no prior arrangements whatsoever.
Once the missionaries were actually embedded, additional embedding regulations were clearly violated. For example, the military does not provide embedded journalists with flak jackets, helmets, or other protective gear. The regulations clearly state that the journalists must supply these things themselves if they want to wear them. A number of scenes in the Travel the Road episodes, however, show that the Army outfitted the missionaries, who travel with nothing but one change of clothes, with all kinds of protective gear. There are also regulations stating that the embedded journalists will stay with the unit they are assigned to. But in the Travel the Road episodes, the missionaries strike out on their own to evangelize the local Afghans. The missionaries' defense that they were not accompanied by soldiers when they were actually handing out their Dari language Bibles is essentially an admission that the Army unit was just letting them go off and do whatever they wanted to -- well aware of their intent to proselytize.
There are also serious questions regarding how Scott and Decker were able to obtain their visas to enter Afghanistan. As you can see in the video below, the missionaries got their visas at an Embassy of the Islamic State of Afghanistan in Eastern Europe. They don't say which country, but they do show a street that is clearly identifiable from a very famous church in the background as being in Prague. In order to get their visas, the missionaries would have had to provide a letter of introduction from their employer or sponsor stating the purpose of the their trip, and would have had to answer a purpose of the trip question on their applications. Would an Afghan embassy have approved their applications if their letter of introduction or applications revealed that their purpose was to film a Christian TV show about spreading Christianity to a Muslim country? It seems almost certain that they would have to have lied about their real purpose to get approved.
But, Decker and Scott clearly have no qualms about lying about their mission. As you'll also see in the video below, while filming a group of young Afghan men in Kabul, one of the men started asking questions, saying, "You're taking pictures now? Where will you show it? Which TV?" Decker responded with a flat out lie, saying, "Um...I don't know." The Afghan man then asked, "It's private?," and Decker lied again, saying, "Maybe in America. It's kind of freelance right now." There is no possibility that Decker didn't know exactly where the program was going to air. Their show was already well established on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the first season having premiered in 2003, two years prior to the filming in Afghanistan of what were final three episodes of its second season.
Another issue is that, under Afghanistan's Mass Media Law, written permission from the Afghan government is required in advance for any filming or photography by foreigners. The version of the law that was in force when the Travel the Road episodes were filmed stated that, "Citizens of foreign countries may produce cinematographic films in Afghanistan, provided that they have obtained prior permission from the Ministry of Information and Culture." Like the approval of their visa applications, would the missionaries have been granted permission to film if the government of Afghanistan had known they were there to film their attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity? Of course not. But, by getting embedded with the U.S. military, they would not have to have obtained special permission or explained what they were actually filming. This is why one of them made it clear in the first episode that their first goal was to make contact with the military and get onto a military base, saying, "We came here to preach the gospel, but first we needed to establish a safe haven, and then we could strike out to the nomadic Afghanis in the countryside."
And, of course, they quickly succeeded in getting a U.S. military military base for their "safe haven, somehow being able to arrange a meeting with the military almost immediately, saying, "Tomorrow, we'll meet with the military, and all we can do now is wait and pray that a door will be opened." Two days later, they were at Camp Phoenix, stating that they were there as "embedded journalists with a squad from Oklahoma, and that "this was the opportunity we were looking for."
MRFF founder and president Mikey Weinstein had the following to say about Tim Scott's incredible claim to ABC News that their proselytizing activities were not facilitated by the U.S. military:
"Fundamentalist Christian missionary Tim Scott's specious and disingenuous claims that the U.S. armed forces combat unit, in which they were clearly and officially embedded by the United States Army, somehow did not remotely 'facilitate their actions or preaching' is simply beneath contempt and is nothing short of an outright lie. I wonder which part of the New Testament supports such putrescent mendacity? No facilitation? Well, quite on the contrary, he and his fellow embedded Christian proselytizer were most graciously and comprehensively provided body armor and helmets, protection and comfort, food and beverages, precious access and insuperable color of American military authority by the U.S. soldiers they were actually living with! Implying that such an advantageous situation did not overwhelmingly aid their unbridled proselytizing efforts to convert as many Afghans as possible is as stupid and dishonorable as saying that George W. Bush was not helped by his daddy to get into the Texas Air National Guard to avoid going to war in Vietnam."
One of the U.S. Army officers involved in the missionaries' embedding was Maj. Eric Bloom, the Media Officer for the 45th Infantry Brigade, Oklahoma National Guard. Maj. Bloom is described by Decker as the officer who "hooked us up real good" at Camp Phoenix, just outside of Kabul, and is also thanked in the show's credits. An attempt was made to reach Maj. Bloom for a comment through the Oklahoma National Guard Public Affairs Office, but neither he nor the Public Affairs Office have responded.
The final clip in the video below is from the last of the three Travel the Road Afghanistan episodes, filmed in Kandahar. In this clip, Tim Scott interviews LTC Robert G. Young, the commander of the 325th Forward Support Battalion. LTC Young, a committed Christian who lists his interests in his Military.com profile as "Jesus, Wife, Kids, PT," and belongs to a group called "Rangers 4 Christ," told Scott that the biggest problem in Kandahar was drought, and that this drought coincidentally began as soon as the Taliban took over the country. He went on to say that we've got to "overcome evil with good," and, literally thumping a Bible, quoted two of its verses in one sentence, saying, "Our weapons aren't carnal" (Corinthians 10:4) "and no weapon formed against us shall prosper." (Isaiah 54:17) He said he told an Afghan general that he would ask the American people to pray that God would send rain to Kandahar, and ended by saying that when the people of Kandahar see the rain "they'll know that our god answers prayers."