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Some Korean Hostages in Poor Health

Aid workers criticized at home, but remaining in country reflected unique motives.

7/27/07 Afghanistan (Compass Direct News) – South Korean aid workers held hostage by Taliban forces in Afghanistan for more than a week are believed to be in poor health, according to a member of their Korean congregation.

The 23 volunteers from Sammul Presbyterian Church in Bundang , South Korea were kidnapped by rebel Taliban forces in Afghanistan ’s Ghazni province on July 19 while traveling by bus from Kabul to Kandahar . After extending an ultimatum to execute the hostages three times, the kidnappers shot the group’s leader, 42-year-old Bae Hyung Kyu, on July 25 – his birthday.

One of the hostages, who underwent an operation for thyroid cancer over three years ago, is likely in bad health without his medication, a member of the Sammul church told Compass.

“This is an important day to pray for their release and that they make it back to Korea safely, because some of them are sick,” said the church member, who requested anonymity.

Two new deadlines for the exchange of hostages and Taliban prisoners have already passed since Bae’s death, but Afghan Deputy Interior Minister Munir Mangal said today that the hostages were “alive and fine,” according to Reuters.

Reuters said that a purported Taliban spokesman had promised his side would no longer set deadlines for their demands to be met.

“All of us are sick and in very bad condition,” one of the kidnapped women told U.S. television station CBS in a telephone interview from captivity.

Though there were conflicting reports about the woman’s name, Voice of America identified the speaker as Lim Hyun-joo.

According to members of her church in Korea , who spelled her name “Lin,” she was one of three women doing aid work permanently in northern Afghanistan who had agreed to help translate for the visiting volunteers.

Lin worked as a nurse in a public health center while the two other translators taught health education to Afghans in the city of Mazar e Sharif. The volunteers from Sammul Church had spent three days helping the women with their work before traveling together back to Kabul, and then went on to Kandahar by bus when no flights were available.

The group had planned to spend several days volunteering at a hospital and kindergarten in Kandahar , where a single Korean woman teacher and two doctors, a husband and wife, from their church also were residing permanently.

“The people in that city love them,” said a member of the Sammul Church , who confirmed that the three Koreans in Kandahar had not been targeted in the kidnapping incident. “In Kandahar , they treat up to 150 patients a day.”

The three aid workers had previously received threats from the Taliban, the church member said, but local Afghans had taken action to protect them.

Unique Motives

On Tuesday (July 24), Afghan villagers in the Ghazni province held a rally demanding that the hostages be released, The Associated Press reported.

One evening later, after the body of Bae had been found with 10 bullet holes through it, a Korean aid worker living in Afghanistan went on local television to make an appeal in Dari for the lives of his fellow countrymen, a Kabul resident said.

“That was quite powerful, my own family were all in tears,” the native Afghan told Compass. In a reference to the Korean War, “He said that [the Koreans] are here because they know what suffering is, and they have been through the same situation that Afghanistan is in right now.”

A close friend of Bae’s from the Sammul church told Compass by telephone that the pastor’s body would most likely be flown back to Korea on Saturday (July 28). There, he said, the church’s head pastor, Park Eun Jo, would conduct the funeral service.

Formerly pastor of Sammul Church ’s singles group, Bae leaves behind a wife and 9-year-old daughter. In his work with unmarried university graduates, Bae helped prepare young people for volunteer trips to do aid work in developing countries, said his friend, who had helped Bae with the singles group.

Under Bae’s leadership, he said, members of the group had begun visiting eight countries each year, undergoing weekly cultural and basic language training to prepare for their travel abroad.

Members of the church had begun traveling to Afghanistan in 2005 to work at orphanages and hospitals.

Korean media as well as some members of the international community in Kabul have criticized the group for being naïve and entering the country ill-prepared.

But Bae’s friend from Sammul told Compass, “They were well prepared for the trip. In a country where there is war, when things get hard, everyone leaves. If we leave the country, who will stay to help the people?”

A church worker in Korea said that even after Bae’s death, Christians need to continue to help majority-Muslim nations, showing them the love of Christ through aid work. “Despite this incident, we do not wish bad things upon either Afghanistan or Muslim countries,” the worker said. “Because they don’t know about Jesus Christ, we have to share the love of Jesus Christ with them.”

Such commitment indicates uniquely Christian motives, suggesting that the Korean aid workers are suffering for their faith even if they were not specifically targeted for being Christians. The church member said he did not believe the kidnapping had anything to do with the volunteers being Christians. Both Sammul church leadership and the Korean government have also insisted that the group was in Afghanistan for humanitarian reasons.

“Kidnapping is a very successful policy, and I order all my mujahideen to kidnap foreigners of any nationality wherever they find them, and then we should do the same kind of deal,” Taliban military commander Mansour Dadullah told Britain’s Channel 4 television according to the BBC. Dadullah was freed in exchange for an Italian journalist earlier this year.

South Korean chief presidential security advisor, Baek Jong-Chun flew to Afghanistan yesterday (July 26) to boost efforts to release the hostages.

Taliban spokesmen have made differing demands in exchange for the hostages’ release, ranging from a prisoner exchange, to ransom payment, to the withdrawal of 200 South Korean troops from Afghanistan . The South Korean government says it was already planning to remove those troops by the end of the year.

Kabul ’s government has instituted new strict security measures in order to protect foreign citizens working in the country.

Foreigners wishing to travel outside Kabul must submit an application to police two days in advance of the trip a local Afghan told Compass by telephone from Kabul today. He said that new checkpoints had been instituted at all of Kabul ’s main roads to enforce the travel ban.