South Koreans react to missionary kidnappings

Some criticize the Christian aid workers for going to Afghanistan in spite of warnings.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In South Korea, grief was tinged with anger Thursday toward Christian missionaries with news that the leader of a group of 23 kidnapped Korean aid workers in Afghanistan had been shot by their Taliban captors.

"The missionaries were warned by the Korean government that it was too dangerous to go to Afghanistan and preach about the Christian God," says Kim Hyoung Jin, a university student in Seoul. "They knew they were taking a risk, even though they knew they were doing a wonderful job, and they knew that something was going to happen."

Jennifer Chang, an announcer at a Seoul radio station, says Koreans are questioning whether the group, including 18 young nurses, was there to dispense medical aid or to spread their religion in a deeply Islamic society.

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"Some Korean Christians think it's a good thing to go to Afghanistan and die trying to proselytize on behalf of their religion," says Ms. Chang, a regular churchgoer in a country that is one-third Christian. "But many are critical."

With nearly 17,000 missionaries in 173 nations, South Korea is second only to the US in the number of Christians sent abroad. In 2004, eight South Korean missionaries were kidnapped (and later released) in Iraq. Later that year, a man who had gone to Iraq to do missionary work was beheaded. That killing prompted sympathy in Korea. But some South Koreans are reacting more critically this time.

The Presbyterian congregation that sent the group to Afghanistan says the group was there to spread aid, not religion. It has been doing medical and charity work for several years in Afghanistan, and each summer the pastor who was killed Wednesday, Bae Hyung-kyu, had brought a group there.

"They go to help Afghan children," says Paul Kim, a member of the Saemmul church, whose 3,000 members pack several services each Sunday in the city of Bundang. "We received help from the US in the Korean War. Now our members help people the way the US helped the Korean people."

Still, some in Seoul say that if missionaries were not attempting to spread Christianity, they did not hesitate to flout the advice of their government not to go to Afghanistan. Koreans point to photographs that church members took of the group in front of a sign at the airport here warning about the dangers of going to Afghanistan. The women in the group all wore veils in accordance with Islamic custom, but the farewell photographs are seen as proof of their pride.

"The church is used to sending missionaries to very dangerous countries," says Julia Kim, a member of another Presbyterian congregation, one of Korea's largest Protestant denominations. "Afghanistan was a very good target for them. It's really sad because they went there [to provide] medicine and they were captured."

The congregation that sent the group to Afghanistan now is recalling another 42 members on missions there and says it will not attempt to send more. Seoul, meanwhile, is sending a special envoy to Afghanistan to try to sort out differing demands for the hostages' release, including money, the release of Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government, and the withdrawal of 210 South Korean troops (mostly engineer and medical teams) before the year's end.

Koreans are far from certain their government should yield to the kidnappers' demands.

"Why should the government pay terrorists for the actions of a group of missionaries who knew they were doing wrong," asks Mr. Kim. "The Korean government should not negotiate with terrorists. Why should the government pay for their mistakes?"

The kidnapping also raises the issue of why South Korea sent troops to Afghanistan in the first place. The Taliban "should not punish Korean missionaries as prisoners of war – for a war that the United States and England began," says Lee Young Nam, another taxi driver, asking why Koreans "should suffer for the actions of the United States."

South Koreans have gathered in churches nationwide to pray for the hostages' release. Several hundred members of the hostages' Saemmul church have been holding overnight vigils, praying, singing, and weeping as they heard of the death of the pastor and new deadlines set by the kidnappers for the murder of others if demands are not met.

Some South Koreans have called for the church to reimburse the government if any ransom money is paid.

But in the Seoul newspaper Chungang Ilbo, commentator Lee Hoon Beom takes issue with those who have expressed antipathy toward what they see as the work of "overzealous Christians" working abroad. "Although they [the church group] made bad decisions, it is not right to condemn people who have a youthful passion to help their neighbors in pain. The Taliban are the fanatics. They don't hesitate to kidnap and kill innocent civilians," he writes.

And some South Koreans see the Rev. Bae as a martyr in a holy cause. "He's a great man of faith and prayer," says Kristen Suh, wife of the pastor of an evangelical church. "He was a pastor over the young people in his church and he is known for his passion for missions."

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun released a statement saying, "Murder of an innocent civilian can never be justified."

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