Who, what, when, where

There is an irony in the story of South Korean missionaries taken hostage by the Taliban. Dr. Leroy Huizenga sent us a note about this CNN story on the Taliban’s statement that the hostages will be released. Here’s the key section:

Under the terms of the agreement, South Korea agreed to stick by its previous decision to withdraw its 200 non-combat troops from Afghanistan, which work mostly in an engineering and medical capacity.

In addition, Seoul will halt all Christian missionary work in Afghanistan.

Dr. Huizenga is wondering why the issue of the South Korean government controlling the actions of the missionaries isn’t receiving more scrutiny.

Does the South Korean government sponsor missionaries? I don’t think so. Does the government have much power over South Koreans going out to do missionary work around the world? … I’d like to know how the government would live up to that end of the bargain.

Buried in a New York Times report is this:

South Korean church groups said Wednesday that they would abide by their government’s pledge that they would stop working in Afghanistan. They also said the kidnappings had led them to review their evangelical zeal.

About 17,000 full-time South Korean missionaries, as well as numerous volunteers on short-term aid missions, operate in more than 160 countries, some of them predominantly Muslim. That number is second only to the estimated 46,000 American missionaries.

“Through this incident, we will look back on the Korean churches’ overseas aid and missionary work and take this as an opportunity to make our work more effective and safer,” the Rev. Kwon Oh-sung, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Korea, said in a statement.

This is all well and good, but we’re still not told how the South Korean government was able to convince the churches to reconsider their missionary work. (For some background on South Korean missionaries and some hints on why the churches may be reconsidering, see this post.)

Here’s the irony: While the South Korean government and its church groups are all reconsidering the nature of missionary work, the church that sent out the hostages still holds that the hostages were doing aid work, not evangelizing. Why isn’t South Korean reconsidering its aid work? Here’s the Times:

The Saemmul Presbyterian Church, to which the hostages belong, said its volunteers were providing aid, not spreading the Gospel.

What compelled the government and the church council to concede that the hostages were proselytizing?

Is the church lying? Is there any way to determine whether the missionaries were engaged purely in aid work and not evangelizing? Rather than simply mentioning the difference between the sending church and everybody else (hostage-takers, government and church groups), maybe reporters should be more explicit about the disagreement because it seems to be a pretty key element of the whole hostage situation.

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  • Eric G.

    I agree that the South Korea/Taliban agreement raises serious questions that haven’t received much attention. When was the last time a democratic government negotiated for a reduction in religious freedom? While I am happy the hostages have been released, this sounds like something of a devil’s bargain to me.

    I have seen questions raised about the propriety of the South Korean government negotiating with the Taliban, which doesn’t have any official government authority. But I’ve seen little questioning of the terms of the agreement, which could in the long run be detrimental to even non-proselytizing efforts of Christian churches. It’ll be interesting to see what the South Korean government has to say about this once all the hostages are safely out of Afghanistan.

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  • http://www.lutheranzephyr.com Chris Duckworth

    South Korean church groups are going to “review their evangelical zeal”? That seems odd to me. I’d like to see an exact quote on that.

    Perhaps the church groups could review their plans for overseas mission and perhaps they will reconsider their efforts in failed nation-states that are partially controlled by terrorists, but I’m not sure that these Christians are reviewing their evangelical zeal.

    Evangelical zeal is the bedrock of their mission, their identity, their calling as Christians. I’m not sure that evangelical zeal can be up for review. Rather, I imagine that their zeal is doing just fine, thanks.

  • http://u2576270.wordpress.com Samuel Lim

    We’re talking about a country that has in a single generation, against all odds, become one of the most Christianised nations of the world. It wasn’t and isn’t something culturally convenient – quite the opposite in fact. The giving up of centuries of animist and Buddhist beliefs for this utterly foreign religion was and is an incredibly radical and difficult step to take, both individually and communally. It is like having a vast majority of Americans giving up meat to become raw vegans in the next hundred years. I agree with Chris that something is definitely lost in translation because that report doesn’t square with what I know of my Korean Christian friends and of their history. And really why should we be surprised? Enough misrepresentations occur in religion stories when only one language medium involved. It is going to take more than this to dent Korea’s missionary zeal. I mean how may countries in the world have a mountain set aside just so that people have a place to pray?

  • Liam

    if anything this situation (for most evangelicals in Korea whom are of my acquaintance)has done nothing but increase a desire to spread the gospel. In our groups we fervently prayed for the release of the hostages, or if not for their deaths to glorify God somehow. Thank God most of them were released.

    There has been a lot of criticism from the nominal Christians and non-Christians (some valid, most ignorant) about their preparedness in going in the first place.

    No, this will not decrease the Korean church’s fervor over the Gospel, but perhaps set it ablaze.

  • Julia

    Having followed this blog for about a month now, it’s apparent that often “Christian” means Evangelical Protestants. That must be why Christianization is described as being in the last generation. So this is a FYI.

    Actually, the first Christians in Korea are the result of a Korean ambassador to China bringing back to Korea some books by the Jesuit priest Fr Ricci who was at the palace in Beijing during the 1600s. The books were studied by scholars and a group of them started having Sunday services in line with what they read. It was very dangerous to be doing this and, although several attempts were made to have Catholic priests enter Korea at that time, it was not until the late 1700s that they were finally served by ordained priests who were smuggled in. The Catholic bible was translated into Korea in the 1800s. The priests had to hide from the government much like they did in England before it became legal to be Catholic in the UK in the early 1800s.

    However, in Korea it remained illegal to be Catholic and as their numbers grew there were crackdowns and persecutions, by far the worst in the 1800s. I have a DVD of a recent Korean film about the most revered painter in Korea during those times that shows him searching for his lover after one of these mass slaughters. The film showed him finding her severed head among thousands that were hanging from ropes strung out like a field of clothes lines. The most famous Korean martyr is Andrew Kim.

    I lived in Seoul in 1969 and 1970 and there were already lots of Protestants at that time. My housemaid’s brother was a Methodist minister. I think the figures now are 10% Catholic and about 15% Protestant of various denominations.

  • Julia

    I forgot to give these links.



    And here is a comprehensive paper on the History of Christianity in Korea. Aside from some snarky comments about control from Rome it’s pretty fair. Some relevant data: by the time an ordained Catholic priest arrived in Korea there were 4,000 self-converted Catholics waiting for him; the Catholic clergy in Korea have been almost exclusively native since its beginning; in 1857 there were 15,000 Catholics; in 1866 there were 8,000 Catholic martyrs – about half of the Catholics at the time; in 1910 there were 73,000 Catholics; the first Protestant mission came from Japan in 1884; subsequent Protestant missions came primarily from the United States; much of the growth of Christianity after WW II can be partly attributed to the massive relief provided the people by Catholic and Protestant organizations.


  • http://www.nomey.blogspot.com Levi Hadley

    I mean how may countries in the world have a mountain set aside just so that people have a place to pray?

    The first one I thought of was Mt. Athos in northeastern Greece, but I get the point about the extreme fervor/devotion of Korean Evangelicals.

  • don

    Unfortunately, we’re all likely to learn a lot more about this question in a more intimate way. As reported by CTV in Canada, from the AP…

    “We will do the same thing with the other allies in Afghanistan, because we found this way to be successful,” Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told The Associated Press by phone on Thursday.

  • Douglas

    The Seoul administration can still save face here by renouncing the deal they struck with the murderous thugs. Why should they “honor” a deal struck under these kinds of terms? It’s outrageous that one party should be expected to deal in good faith when the other party is not from the outset. This point is made in today’s IHT in an op-ed here: