Korean Missionary Work in Afghanistan in the Spotlight
A kindergarten in Kandahar, Afghanistan which a missionary group from the Saemmul church in Bundang, Gyeonggi Province planned to visit before they were kidnapped. Since its opening in 2005, the kindergarten has admitted about 100 war orphans and children from destitute families. Two classrooms and the teachers' room were burned down in an arson attack last year.
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The work of Korean evangelical churches in Afghanistan is in the spotlight again after 23 members of a church were kidnapped by Taliban insurgents on Thursday. Last August, Korean evangelical churches were prevented by the Korean and Afghan governments at the 11th hour from holding what they said was a “peace march” of some 2,000 born-again Christians.
Churches say some 100 Korean missionaries from a dozen organizations and churches are in Afghanistan. Most are focusing on volunteer activities rather than openly preaching the gospel. The Rev. Kwon Sung-chan, who worked in Afghanistan before the Taliban took power, said, "In the past, foreigners could enter Afghanistan only through Pakistan. But I understand there are more routes into the country these days and it’s much easier to get entry visas, so a lot of Korean Christians are working there."
According to Evangelicals who have been to Afghanistan, many go to Afghanistan despite the danger because there is so much to do. Choi Han-woo, the secretary general of the Institute of Asian Culture and Development who organized last year's rally, said, "The history of Afghanistan is reminiscent of Korea's modern history in that the country has been invaded by foreign forces many times and went through a civil war recently. There are many things we can do to help it in the postwar rehabilitation process." He said missionary work is challenging but rewarding at the same time.
Members of the Saemmul church in Bundang, Gyeonggi Province leave the church after morning worship on Sunday.
Since the end of the U.S.-led war in 2002, 400 to 500 Korean evangelicals have visited the country every year for medical volunteer work and to offer education for children and youths, advice on information technology, and advice on agriculture.
During the vacations, many go on short-term missions. Local missionaries help each church or organization locate the targets. The kidnapped members of the Saemmul church in Bundang, Gyeonggi Province were apparently on such a short-term mission. In an interview with the Arabic satellite TV channel Al Jazeera on Saturday, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a purported spokesman for the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, said that the detained Koreans were carrying out "missionary activities." He added, "Afghanistan is an Islamic republic where conversion from Islam or attempting to convert Muslims is regarded as a serious crime in several areas." Islam experts say this is not based on hostility to Christianity itself but because Islam condemns apostasy. Choi Jin-young, secretary general of the Korea Middle East Association, said, "Due to this rule, Islamic countries ban missionary work although they do not make an issue of faith, be it Christianity or Islam." Lee Hee-soo, a professor at Hanyang University, said, "The Taliban regard missionary work itself as a crime that threatens the foundation of their country and society."
Some Muslim countries even curb Islamic proselytizing beyond certain boundaries, citing a verse in the Koran that says, “There is no compulsion in religion." Last November, the Kazakh government punished an Islamic missionary organization for lecturing at a Mosque without government permission. Even in Turkey, a secular country, open missionary work by other religions is often held in check.
S. Korea ponders evangelical zeal
Jul 23, 2007 Reuters
The kidnapping of 23 Korean church volunteers in Afghanistan has raised questions in South Korea over whether the country's evangelical Christian groups may be too zealous in sending missionaries overseas. There are an estimated 17,000 South Korean Christian missionaries abroad, the largest contingent after those from the United States, with many of them in volatile regions. Several major dailies questioned why the church that sent the volunteers to Afghanistan ignored government warnings of the risk of conflict with the Islamic militarist Taliban. "Religious groups should realise once and for all that dangerous missionary and volunteer activities in Islamic countries including Afghanistan not only harm Korea's national objectives, but also put other Koreans under a tremendous amount of duress," the right-leaning Chosun Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial. The Saemmul Church from which the kidnapped Koreans were dispatched is relatively moderate and its missions abroad have focused on volunteer medical and humanitarian work, people in the Christian community say. But for many increasingly wealthy evangelical churches in South Korea, dispatching missionaries and Christian volunteers abroad has become a competition, with larger numbers widely considered a gauge of the strength of their beliefs. "I have never seen this kind of zeal elsewhere," said Song Jae-ryong of Kyunghee University, in Seoul, who specialises in religious sociology. Critics say that while the churches do a lot of good abroad, they can at times have a shallow view of the world. "South Korean evangelism has a strong tendency to push for what they believe in, often in disregard of the peculiarities of the places they are trying to work in," Song said. South Korea has one of the largest percentages of Christians in Asia, at around 30% of the population.
The religion grew in post-war South Korea, with many seeing it as a way to a better education and social standing. In some cases, dozens or even hundreds of South Korean evangelicals can be found in a single small city, with some even fighting one another over the voluntary work to be done, the left-leaning daily Hankyoreh reported. A few evangelical church leaders boast about getting around South Korean government warnings and bans other countries place on missionary visas by unofficially dispatching missionaries. This practise has drawn criticism among other South Korean churches, because it makes it difficult for locals to distinguish between Christian volunteers doing humanitarian work and those whose primary mission is to seek converts overseas. Last August, Afghanistan deported hundreds of visiting South Korean Christians who wanted to parade through Kabul over security fears after Islamic clerics demanded their expulsion, accusing them of trying to proselytise.