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Korean Missionaries Carry Word to Hard Places

New York Times

By Norimitsu Onishi

AMMAN, Jordan — A South Korean missionary here speaks of introducing Jesus in a “low voice and with wisdom” to Muslims, the most difficult group to convert. In Baghdad , South Koreans plan to open a seminary even after Iraqi churches have been bombed in two recent coordinated attacks. In Beijing , they defy the Chinese government to smuggle North Koreans to Seoul while turning them into Christians.

South Korea has rapidly become the world’s second largest source of Christian missionaries, only a couple of decades after it started deploying them. With more than 12,000 abroad, it is second only to the United States and ahead of Britain .

The Koreans have joined their Western counterparts in more than 160 countries, from the Middle East to Africa, from Central to East Asia . Imbued with the fervor of the born again, they have become known for aggressively going to — and sometimes being expelled from — the hardest-to-evangelize corners of the world. Their actions are at odds with the foreign policy of South Korea ‘s government, which is trying to rein them in here and elsewhere.

It is the first time that large numbers of Christian missionaries have been deployed by a non-Western nation, one whose roots are Confucian and Buddhist, and whose population remains two-thirds non-Christian. Unlike Western missionaries, whose work dovetailed with the spread of colonialism, South Koreans come from a country with little history of sending people abroad until recently. They proselytize, not in their own language, but in the local one or English.

“There is a saying that when Koreans now arrive in a new place, they establish a church; the Chinese establish a restaurant; the Japanese, a factory,” said a South Korean missionary in his 40’s, who has worked here for several years and, like many others, asked not to be identified because of the dangers of proselytizing in Muslim countries.

In Iraq , eight South Korean missionaries were briefly kidnapped in April. Then, in June, Kim Sun Il, a 33-year-old man who had planned to do missionary work, was taken hostage and beheaded. In July, nearly 460 North Korean defectors arrived in South Korea , thanks to a smuggling network set up by missionaries in China .

In 1979, only 93 South Koreans were serving as missionaries, according to the Korea Research Institute for Missions. Compared with South Korea ‘s 12,000, there are about 46,000 American and 6,000 British missionaries, according to missionary organizations in South Korea and the West.

Roman Catholicism first came to the Korean Peninsula in the late 18th century, followed a century later by Protestant missionaries from the United States . Christianity failed to set firm roots in Japan and China , where 19th-century missionaries were seen as agents of Western imperialism. But it spread quickly on the Korean Peninsula , where American missionaries helped Korean nationalists fight against Japanese colonial rulers and informed the outside world of the brutalities of Japanese colonialism.

It was only in the last two decades, however, with the growth of the South Korean economy and its newly democratic government’s decision to allow its citizens to travel freely overseas, that South Korean Christianity took on a missionary gloss.

Today, an equal number of missionaries are born again or members of Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptists denominations, said Steve S. C. Moon, executive director of the Korea Research Institute for Missions. These missionaries, like their Western counterparts, tend to focus on activities that are evangelical, educational and medical, and their beliefs are far more traditional.

A typical case is the Presbyterian Onnuri Church, founded 19 years ago with the main purpose of training missionaries. It now has 500 in 53 countries, though it focuses on China, Indonesia and India, said Kim Joong Won, director of its missionary program.

Until June, Onnuri had a church in Baghdad where Kim Sun Il, who was beheaded, had gone to worship.

“He is a martyr to God’s glory,” said Mr. Moon of the research institute. “Korean missionaries are eager to do God’s work and glorify God. They want to die for God.”

Because religious visas are difficult to obtain in the Middle East, many come on student visas or set up computer or other businesses, and evangelize discreetly.

One Korean who has worked here several years and spoke of evangelizing in a “low voice and with wisdom,” said that over intimate meals with three or four Muslims he would let the conversation drift to Jesus. So delicate is his work that he never mentions words like “missionary” or “evangelize.” Muslims who have converted to Christianity are never identified as such — a necessary precaution in a society where some families engage in so-called honor killings of relatives who have left Islam.

Many missionaries also focus on bringing Arab Catholics or Chaldeans into the evangelical fold.

“There are so many ways to do our work,” said the missionary in his 40’s, who works in a local church in Amman and delivers English sermons that are translated into Arabic.

“Just as American missionaries did in Korea by building schools and hospitals, there are many ways here,” he said. “One important group is Iraqi refugees. They come here. They are tired physically and spiritually. They are so lonely. We help them. They realize they are being helped by Christians. Then they ask about Jesus.”

About 30 missionary families have settled here in Amman. Others wait to return to Iraq, which they left in June under intense pressure from the South Korean government. John Jung has been working with an Iraqi pastor, Estawri Haritounian, 40, to open a seminary at the National Protestant Evangelical Church in Baghdad.

“Saddam Hussein’s regime allowed Christians to gather in private houses, so it was difficult, though possible, for us to evangelize,” said Mr. Jung, who has been traveling in and out of Iraq for several years. “But now it has become even more difficult for Christians in Iraq. Christians are afraid of Muslims for the first time. We are frustrated we can’t be in Iraq at this important time. But as soon as the security allows, we will go back to Baghdad.”

In Baghdad, Mr. Haritounian explained recently that the church had been founded half a century ago with the help of British missionaries. American missionaries replaced them later and were in turn succeeded by South Koreans.

“We dreamed this dream, Pastor John and I, to start a seminary in Baghdad,” said Mr. Haritounian, showing eight completed, though empty, classrooms.

Mr. Jung, in Amman, said they hoped to start classes as soon as the security improved in Baghdad. “We’ll start with only 15 students, but we hope to grow in the future,” he said.

Many in Amman said South Koreans had an advantage over others, especially now that the war in Iraq has aggravated anti-American feelings in the Middle East.

“People expect missionaries to be from America or Europe, so Koreans can do their work quietly,” Mr. Haritounian said. “Because of the bad image of Americans now, it will be more difficult for American missionaries to work here.”

Dennis Merdian, 50, an American missionary, said that in one difficult project he and a South Korean counterpart agreed immediately that it would be better for the South Korean to take the lead.

“He wasn’t carrying the American government with him,” Mr. Merdian said.

But because of their short history of living overseas, some South Koreans expect that other cultures will behave the same way their own does and that Christianity will spread abroad as quickly as it did in South Korea, said Mr. Moon of the Korea Research Institute for Missions.

“Western missionaries tend to carry a sense of guilt because of their imperialist past,” he said. “But Koreans don’t have that historical baggage, and they are not inhibited in reaching out to people with the Gospel. So in their missionary work, they tend not to consult the local people, but make decisions in one direction.”

Shadi Samir, 28, a Jordanian pastor who has worked with South Koreans and recently visited Seoul, said he had seen inexperienced missionaries commit cultural blunders.

“They come here full of energy and go out on the streets where they approach women and tell them Jesus loves them,” Mr. Samir said. “By making such mistakes, they create problems not only for themselves and other Koreans, but also for us.”

Kim Dong Moon, a missionary who works in the Middle East and also writes about the missionary movement, said some South Korean missionaries had been deported from the Middle East and ended up on blacklists.

In China, South Koreans concentrate on converting the Chinese, as well as the ethnic North Koreans living in northeastern China. After they are smuggled out of China to South Korea, though, only about a third of the North Koreans continue practicing Christianity, missionaries said. Other South Koreans train North Korean Christians to return to the North to spread the Gospel.

“North Korea, which is occupied by the devil Kim Jong Il, is the biggest target of our missionary work,” said Kim Sang Chul, president of the Commission to Help North Korean Refugees, a Christian organization.

The missionary here in Amman in his 40’s said that, in his previous posting in the Philippines, he was awed when he saw American missionaries fly to remote islands and, wherever they spotted signs of life in the jungle below, drop food packets as the first contact with what missionaries call “unreached people.”

“So even here, it is very difficult, but not impossible,” he said. “We are planting one church at a time.”