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Korean Christians Critical Of Missionary Ban

Development work suffers from loss of South Korean volunteers.

9/11/07 South Korea/Afghanistan (Compass Direct News) – More than a week after the Taliban released Korean aid workers in Afghanistan , some South Korean Christians are critical of their government’s ban on missionary travel to the country.

South Korea agreed to withdraw troops and missionaries from Afghanistan last month in exchange for the release of the remaining 19 kidnapped Korean aid workers. The Taliban had already killed two of the group’s members and released two others after the Christian service team was captured on July 19.

Critics claim that South Korea ’s ban on missionary travel to Afghanistan limits religious freedom and encourages extremist attacks on Christians around the globe.

A Taliban spokesman said last week that his group would continue kidnapping foreigners because they had found it to be an effective tactic, according to Agence France-Press (AFP).

Choi Han Eu, president of the Institute for Asian Culture and Development (IACD), told Compass that carrying out religious activities is a basic human right that must be protected.

“In Iraq , in Somalia or any other country where there is a dangerous situation, will Christians not be able to go there if it is a Muslim country?” said Choi, whose Protestant group carries out development work in more than a dozen Asian countries.

In effect, according to Christian sources, the ban has curtailed almost all development work by Koreans in Afghanistan .

“If a Christian does aid work in a Muslim country, they call that missionary work,” said Choi. “Koreans have not been doing overt evangelism in Afghanistan .”

A spokesman from the Korean presidential office said he was unable to give Compass a definition of “missionary work” banned by the government.

30 IACD staff members working at hospitals and schools in Afghanistan have been forced to leave, Choi told Compass.

According to non-governmental organization (NGO) workers in Afghanistan , between 200 and 300 Korean workers have returned to Korea .

“[Koreans] were dispersed throughout various NGOs, and there hasn’t been much time to fill the positions,” one foreign development worker said. “We are [already] understaffed.”

The Korean Army also withdrew its engineering and medical units, both heavily involved in reconstruction work.

Only a few Koreans with dual citizenship have been able to stay in Afghanistan , local NGO workers reported.

“The Afghan people will be the ones who are most harmed by this,” commented Choi.

Quiet Acceptance – For Now

The kidnapping of volunteer workers from a Korean church in July, in no way related to the IACD, renewed anger against Korean Christian development workers. Critics in Korea claimed that the church group was at fault for disregarding warnings against visiting Afghanistan .

Foreign NGO workers in Afghanistan said that the volunteers’ methods inside the country had caused problems.

“Anybody who tries to go to Kandahar is asking for trouble,” said one foreigner, referring to a southern Taliban stronghold to which the Koreans had been traveling when captured. “Being in a large group is also asking for trouble.”

Protestors in front of Bundang’s Sammul Presbyterian Church, which sent the volunteers, demanded Sunday (September 9) that the church pay government expenses incurred in the hostage negotiations.

Intense criticism has caused many Korean Christians to quietly accept the government’s ban on missionary activity to Afghanistan .

More than 100 Presbyterian pastors gathered in Seoul last week to pray and repent for the way that they had conducted missions in the past. The leaders confessed that their churches had at times wrongly emphasized quantity over quality.

“Normally the government and church should be separate, and the church should decide its own policy,” said Chae Ki Bomb, general secretary of the Christian Council of Korea , a mainstream evangelical umbrella organization. “But at this time, it’s alright that the government decided.”

Choi of the IACD agreed that the government had the responsibility to protect its citizens but that this should not overrule basic religious freedom. He said his group would wait for tensions to cool before deciding whether to challenge the missionary ban in court.

The Christian Council’s Chae agreed that the ban should not last indefinitely. “At this time we stopped, but we want to continue missions to Islamic areas in the future,” he said.

Protestant churches in Korea support more than 15,000 international missionaries, the second largest number of missionaries world-wide after those sent by U.S. churches.

Choi’s group came under harsh criticism last August for organizing an aborted “peace rally” in Kabul .

Citing security concerns, the South Korean government blocked its citizens’ entry to Afghanistan and deported others after 1,000 Koreans had already arrived for the event.

Local Christian NGO workers were also critical, saying the rally was not culturally appropriate in a Muslim country hypersensitive to Christian evangelism.

Beaten in Captivity

Little has appeared in English-language media regarding claims that hostages were beaten and killed for refusing to convert to Islam.

According to AFP, a Seoul doctor confirmed that Taliban captors had beaten hostages in captivity.

“They said they were beaten at first for refusing to take part in Islamic prayers or for rejecting a demand to convert,” the doctor said in the September 3 article.

Seoul-based Christian Today newspaper on September 5 quoted Sammul church head pastor Park Eun Jo as saying that Bae Hyung Kyu had been killed for refusing to convert. The Sammul church referred to Bae as a martyr at his funeral on Saturday (September 8).