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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 August 2007, 12:49 GMT 13:49 UK
S Korean churches question mission
More than three weeks ago, a group of Korean Christians were kidnapped in Afghanistan. The BBC's Daniel Griffiths found out how the news had affected their church congregation back in Seoul.

South Koreans pray for the hostages at a church in Seoul - 12/08/07
About a quarter of South Korea's population is now Christian
At Saemmul church in South Korea they are praying for a miracle.

The hostages kidnapped by the Taleban in Afghanistan last month were all regular worshippers here, in this anonymous office block in the suburbs of the capital, Seoul.

Now their friends and fellow believers find themselves at the centre of a hostage crisis.

So far two of the South Koreans have been killed, and two released. A South Korean government delegation is negotiating with the Taleban about the fate of the remaining hostages.

The kidnappings have sparked a debate about the rights and wrongs of Christian charity workers going to danger zones like Afghanistan.

Difficult time

The evening service is at 8pm. A few hundred people have come to worship, and the sound of singing can be heard throughout the building.

"It's a very sad situation and I hope that the hostages will return home safely," says one man attending the service. "I hope the Taleban will have sympathy and release them."

We are very sorry for the whole nation to be in this situation, but some of the criticisms of us have been too harsh and unfair
Bang Young-kyun, Saemmul church minister

Many other worshippers are reluctant to talk to the media.

News organisations have been camped out here since the crisis began.

Their satellite trucks are parked in front of the church, and journalists and camera crews mill around the building. A media centre has been set up in the basement.

The story has become a national obsession here in South Korea.

Among the public there is sympathy for the hostages and their friends and families.

HOSTAGE TIMELINE
19 July: 23 South Korean Christian aid workers seized on bus in Ghazni province
26 July: Body of hostage Pastor Bae Hyung-kyu is found
31 July: Second hostage Shim Sung-min, 29, found shot dead
13 August: Two hostages freed

But many are also asking why members of Saemmul church went to Afghanistan, ignoring the official warnings about threats to their safety.

There has been strong criticism in some sections of the media and online, with many claiming that the hostages were inexperienced and should have listened to government advice.

The minister of Saemmul church, Bang Young-kyun, says his parishioners are hurt by the public outcry.

"Everyone here is devastated, but we are still not giving up hope," he says.

"We are praying that the situation will not end in tragedy. We are very sorry for the whole nation to be in this situation, but some of the criticisms of us have been too harsh and unfair."

The relatives of the two hostages who have now been released have apologised for the ordeal, but at the same they said they would continue to help the families of those still held captive.

Soul searching

The row over the hostages has led to much debate in the Christian community about the rights and wrongs of church members working overseas.

"At this point, we should reflect on where we are, and reconsider where we are heading to in our missionary work," a former senior South Korean church official, Reverend Park Jong-soon, said recently.

Relatives of the hostages wait for news in Sungnam, south of Seoul - 12/08/07
Hostages' relatives have been praying for weeks for good news

At the end of 2006, it was thought South Korea had as many as 16,000 Christian charity workers abroad. They are mostly professionals, and more than half of them are in Asian countries.

They are part of a growing trend in South Korea.

The nation's traditional faith is Buddhism, but more and more people are turning to Christianity. It is thought that Christians now make up a quarter of South Korea's 49 million people.

Overseas charity work is a big part of their mission. Other churches here still have workers in Afghanistan, although they are reluctant to talk to the media about it.

Some Koreans claim that the work of these churches overseas is something which has long been a matter of discussion.

"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 South Korean news agency Yonhap.

That debate is only going to grow in the light of the current hostage crisis.




SEE ALSO
Taleban free two S Korea hostages
14 Aug 07 |  South Asia
S Korea agonises over hostages
06 Aug 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Koreans react to hostage killings
31 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
In pictures: South Korean hostages
31 Jul 07 |  In Pictures
S Korean hostage pleads for help
26 Jul 07 |  South Asia
South Korea rethinks mission strategy
26 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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