Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

The drama of the bloody shooting death of Korean pastor Bae Hyng-Kyu, 42, Wednesday by Taliban militants in Afghanistan and concerns over the release of his 22 Christian mission comrades points up the increasingly dramatic, often dangerous role that Korean missionaries are playing across the world, particularly in Islamic countries.

In a burst of sometimes foolhardy religious zeal, South Korean evangelicals have targeted Muslims across the world, believing they can win converts from Islam – a belief that engenders violent reactions in the Islamic world, which regards apostasy as particularly loathsome. They sometimes pay for their zeal with their lives. Ignoring that fact, the deployment of Korean missionaries abroad has become a vehicle for churches to broaden their reputations and attract new members at a time when domestic membership is starting to stagnate.

The capture of the 23, abroad officially as health aid workers, has crystalized debate in Korea’s Christian churches over whether aggressive prosetylizing is a proper course. While the mission group insists it was in Afghanistan purely to perform good works, not to Christianize the locals, few believe that to be the case. The pastor of the church who sent the young volunteers into harm’s way has apologized for the incident, but the ultimate aim of missions is proselytization and good works are a way to share the “good news” of the Bible, many fervent Christians believe.

A year ago, hundreds of Korean pilgrims descended on Kabul to participate in a peace festival, thus creating an embarrassment for the government of Premier Hamid Karzai. Outraged Muslim clerics accused the Koreans of proselytizing and demanded their expulsion. They were deported. As many as 1,500 Koreans, most from church groups, have landed in Afghanistan over the past five years on tourist visas despite warnings from South Korea’s foreign ministry and embassy in Kabul that conservative Islamists could be outraged.

Although Christianity came to Korea only about 100 years ago, the Koreans adopted the faith with enthusiasm. About 30 percent of the country’s 48 million citizens are Christians, 8.7 million of them Protestants and 5.5 million Catholics. Huge churches, some with nearly 10,000 worshipers, are packed even on weekdays, and missions have become a crucial focus for large churches which pursue their own independent strategies abroad. But their inexperience often left them ill-prepared and ignorant of rules and practices in regions where proselytizing is prohibited by law, critics say.

The Korean church volunteers, 18 women and five men, are members of the Saemmul Presbyterian Church from a Seoul suburb. The church operates its own NGO to pursue mission work, the Korean Foundation for World Aid, which is headed by Saemmul’s pastor Park Eun-jo. “I am really sorry for causing serious concerns to the nation,” Park said after the kidnapping. “Particularly, I apologize to the families of the 23 relief workers for causing them enormous pain.”

It appears that Park’s followers, however, went into their mission blithely unaware of the dangers they faced. They were riding a charter bus often used by foreigners, which appears to have immediately attracted attention of Taliban kidnapers. For fear that local officials might turn them back, they had not alerted local police to their presence in the region, according to the driver of the bus from which they were taken. The situation remains fluid.

What does not remain fluid is that they are part of an astonishing vanguard of nearly 17,000 Korean Christian missionaries serving abroad, more than half of them I Asia and second only to the United States in total numbers. Despite the fact that Korea is host to a Buddhist and Confucian tradition dating back more than a thousand years, Koreans have embraced Christianity rabidly if belatedly. They slaughtered as many as 5,000 western Christian missionaries in the 18th and 19th century before the religion began to take root in the late 1900s. With about a third of the country accepting the faith, Korea is now second only to the Philippines as a home to Christianity in Asia.

Some millenarian sects believe that Koreans, sandwiched as they are between Japan and China, constitute one the lost tribes descended from Noah who were supposedly scattered across the globe after the Great Flood The ancient kingdom of Israel, they believe, consisted of 12 tribes, which was divided into two in 933 BC. The 10 tribes of the northern kingdom were exiled to Assyria in 722 B.C. and some were ultimately scattered along the Silk Road all the way to Japan.

Missionaries have continued to put themselves in harm’s way, as in 2004, when seven missionaries were kidnapped in Iraq and were released within hours. They were luckier than Kim Sun Il, a 33-year-old translator who had hoped to do missionary work in Iraq; he was taken hostage and beheaded. As it is in a wide array of Islamic countries, proselytizing is illegal in Afghanistan. That hasn’t deterred South Korean Christians, who can't seem to take no for an answer.

Some Korean bloggers have lashed out at the missionaries, prompting President Roh Moo Hyun, who is Catholic, to issue a statement asking for forbearance. Evangelical churches in Korea are increasingly on the receiving end of criticism for sending what critics say are unprepared missionaries to Afghanistan and other hot spots in the belief that God will take care of them. The government and the hostages’ families are appealing to the public not to aggravate the situation. The Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo also reported that the Saemmul Church’s website had to close after being inundated with attacks from critics.

Roh’s government belatedly added Afghanistan to its list of no-travel zones, but not until after the kidnapping. For now, it is illegal for Koreans to travel there, but whether the missionaries already there will be able travel home remains in doubt.

"Even before this incident, debate was under way whether we should be more cautious," Pastor Park Seung-cheol, a spokesman for the Korean Council of Churches, told the Yonhap news agency. "It's a theological question whether aggressive proselytizing is right or wrong. Many say that Christians should try more to understand and sympathize with locals rather than to convert them, but it's not easy to say aggressive evangelism is wrong because that's a fundamental denial of what the decree says. But we will have a big debate about this. That's for sure."

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