Korean Pastor Killed by Taliban

The minister who led a group of South Korean church volunteers on a summer mission trip to Afghanistan has been killed by the Taliban militants who kidnapped the group last week.

Pastor Bae Hyeong-gyu, 42, was killed Wednesday, according to government officials.

The pastor’s body was tossed on a highway between Kabul and Kandahar in Ghazni Province, bringing a grizzly end to his mission ‑ along with his young parishioners ‑ to bring relief services to Afghanistan. Korea’s Yonhap news agency said the bullet-riddled body had been recovered along the highway. It was later brought to an American air base.

Taliban spokesman Yousef Ahmadi was quoted saying the man had been killed because Taliban demands ‑ which include a prisoner release and withdrawal of South Korean troops from the country ‑ hadn't been met.

Ahmadi told CNN that the remaining hostages would be killed by 1 a.m. Thursday, local time, if the demands weren't met.

Bae’s death came as negotiations to secure the release of 23 Christian hostages, most of them women in their 20s and 30s, appeared to be leading to the release of eight of the victims. The eight were widely reported in Korea to have been taken to an American air base, but the government reversed earlier optimism and refused to confirm the development.

Two unnamed Western officials also said eight hostages were released, AP reported.

The plight of the church workers – the largest group of kidnap victims ever from Korea – has focused attention on the evangelical fervor of Korean protestants, who often send mission workers into some of the toughest places in the world. They were snatched from a bus in largely lawless Ghazni Province last Friday.

Korean mission workers operate in Africa, the Middle East, China and North Korea, where they cross the border illegally and seek to convert their communist brethren in secret. The estimated 16,000 Korean missionaries abroad are the second largest group in the world, after the United States.

Saemmul Presbyterian Church, which sent the group to Afghanistan, has insisted that they were not doing religious work in Afghanistan, but were instead providing social services and aiding relief efforts.

On Monday, the pastor of the church, Reverend Park Eun-jo, apologized for creating difficulties by sending the church volunteers, most of them young women, to the region and said the church would suspend further relief efforts in Afghanistan.

“I am really sorry for causing serious concerns to the nation,” Park said. “Particularly, I apologize to the families of the 23 relief workers for causing them enormous pain.”

The church has been criticized for failing to understand the seriousness of the security situation in Afghanistan and for sending Christian missionaries to a devoutly Muslim country that might easily be offended by the gesture. “We love Afghanistan, and we respect Muslim culture,” Park said, insisting that the church workers were not in the country to try and convert the local population.

Nonetheless, some observers see the fervor of the Korean church as a problem in itself.

“Korean churches often follow the concept of aggressive modernization,” Song Jae-ryong, a professor of religion and sociology at Kyung Hee University in Seoul told the JoongAng Daily. “Appearances, such as how many believers does our church have, how much has our church collected and how large is our church building, are considered important. It is hard to deny that such a tendency is part of the background for Korean churches’ aggressive sending of missionaries abroad.”

Song urged the Korean church to rethink its approach to missions.

“Evangelical churches are engaged in fierce competition as to how many missionaries they send and how much time their missionaries spend in foreign countries,” the Hankyoreh newspaper in Seoul wrote after the church workers were abducted last Friday. “Competition is becoming so stiff that, in some cases, dozens or even hundreds of South Korea evangelists can be found in a single small city, with some even fighting one another over the work to be done.

“Korean missionaries, who have increasingly been sent to Islamic regions at a war, risk putting their lives on the line. They could especially be in danger due to the fact that they work in areas where the conflicts between Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are at their most extreme.”

The Korean government remains in a tough dilemma. Kabul has publicly ruled out a prisoner swap for hostages in any situation and officials here worry that if a large ransom is paid it could increase the risks to Koreans of becoming targets of terrorists elsewhere in the world.

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