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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 July 2007, 08:02 GMT 09:02 UK
South Korea rethinks mission strategy
By Krasimira Petrova
BBC News

The kidnapping of 23 South Korean hostages in Afghanistan has raised questions back home over what the team was doing in such a dangerous place.

South Korean media has been quick to call for future trips to be more carefully planned, and even to question the merits of such missions in the first place.

Christians praying
Zealous Korean Christians go to church eight times a week
In response to the hostage crisis, South Korea's foreign ministry banned its nationals from travelling to Afghanistan and urged those already there - an estimated 200 civilians - to get out.

The Saemmul Presbyterian Church, which sent the abducted missionaries, has been quick to comply with the request.

It had another 42 workers in Afghanistan, doing volunteer work in Kabul and Kandahar, at the time of the kidnapping.

'Careless approach'

The Saemmul Church insists the hostages were on an aid, not an evangelising, mission, providing medical services to people suffering from disease.

"We have to be careful in sending our people to dangerous countries," Pang In-sung, director of Newsnjoy, a progressive Christian newspaper supported by the Saemmul Church, said.

"But as Christians we also have a duty to go and help others who are in need. Not to evangelise, but to help."

But Pang In-sung admitted there were lessons to be learnt from what has happened in Afghanistan. "We have to correct past mistakes and start being very careful about our work abroad," he told the BBC News website.

The Saemmul Church has faced accusations that it embarked on a dangerous mission without adequate thought to the possible consequences.

Several South Korean dailies carried editorials urging Christian groups to rethink their mission strategy in dangerous regions.

"Volunteer work is good. But in a multicultural and multi-religious age and especially in a place like Afghanistan, where there is a sharp hatred of Christianity, a deeper understanding of indigenous conditions must precede the dispatch of volunteer workers," wrote Choson Ilbo.

Many Korean citizens also question the necessity for missionaries to travel to dangerous countries.

A man reading the bible
The prayer mountains are a popular weekend destination
"I am so sorry for the captives, however I think it is quite unreasonable that they went there in the first place against the Korean government's travel advisory," said BBC website user Hee Nam Lim, from Ulsan.

"I realise they had good intentions but they have become a great burden for our government and our people," he said.

Critics also say that missionaries can sometimes be too aggressive in their desire to spread the gospel, and show lack of understanding of local cultures.

Yun Young Lee, who has done missionary work in Nepal and is preparing to go to Uganda next month, says that Korean missionaries often ignore local customs.

Apart from the strong religious zeal, there is also a sense of nationalism behind sending missionaries abroad
Chung-shin Park, professor of Korean church history
"Missionary work abroad is a great thing to do, but you have to be very careful, especially in some Islamic countries," he said.

"You shouldn't talk to people directly about their religion, in order to change their views, you have to respect their culture and beliefs."

There is no evidence that the Saemmul Church was guilty of such behaviour, but South Korea is certainly known for the zeal of its missionaries, as well as the number of people it sends overseas on mission trips.

Korean evangelical groups have dispatched about 17,000 people to 173 countries, from the Middle East and Africa through to Central and East Asia, and South Korea is the second largest source of Christian missionaries after the US.

Thousands are working in Muslim countries, where local governments strictly ban Christian proselytising.

Last August, Afghanistan deported hundreds of South Koreans who were planning to hold a parade through Kabul.

In 2004, eight South Korean missionaries were kidnapped in Iraq. Later in the same year, a 33-year-old man, Kim Sun-il, who had planned to do missionary work there, was taken hostage and beheaded.

South Koreans vividly remember the incident, and many even viewed the video of the execution on the internet.

Exporting religion

Protestant missionaries from the US came to the Korean peninsula in the late 19th century.

Christianity initially failed to make a big impact in China and Japan, where missionaries were regarded as agents of Western imperialism.

Yoido Full Gospel Church
Seoul's Yoido Full Gospel Church is the largest in the world
But the "religion from the West" spread quickly in the Hermit Kingdom, and American missionaries were seen by Korean nationalists as a source of support in their fight against Japanese colonial rulers.

Now South Korea has the largest percentage of evangelical Christians in Asia, at about 25% of the population.

Having achieved such a following at home, Korean churches have started in the last couple of decades to look at ways to expand abroad.

"Pastors of big churches want to show off that they are doing something great for Christianity. Korea is a small country that has achieved a strong economy, and it wants to show its success to the world," said Chung-shin Park, a professor of Korean church history.

"Apart from the strong religious zeal, there is also a sense of nationalism behind this," he said.

"The church's ambition is to overtake the US and become the world's number one exporter of missionaries within the next two decades."

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