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Details of S. Korean hostage deal elicit mixed reactions

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Two prominent Southern Baptists expressed thankfulness Aug. 28 that the Taliban apparently will release 19 South Korean Christian hostages but dismay that as part of the deal the South Korean government will ban Christian missionary work in Afghanistan.

The 19 hostages from Saemmul Presbyterian Church just outside of Seoul were kidnapped July 19 when armed Taliban gunmen stopped their bus as it traveled on a road to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The party actually had 23 members at the time, but two later were executed and two were released.

The 19 hostages aren’t free yet, though, and other details must be worked out, South Korea presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-seon said, according to various news reports. In return for the hostages’ release, Cheon said, South Korea agreed to keep its promise to pull its troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year — something it had announced last year — and to ban “missionary work by Korean Christians in Afghanistan.” A Taliban spokesman confirmed the agreement, the Los Angeles Times reported. The two sides had been in negotiations for weeks.

Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., said the news about the hostages elicits mixed emotions.

“I have prayed for the release of these hostages,” he told Baptist Press. “I have spoken to persons within our own government about this situation. I have spoken with several persons in the Korean Christian community. So, therefore I am delighted that they are being released.

“But I am saddened about some of the conditions for the release. I had encouraged the Koreans not to negotiate with terrorists, and had hoped that they would be released out of sheer human kindness and/or military intervention. While the statement is made [by the South Korean government] that missionary work will stop, God’s work will not stop in Afghanistan.”

The Taliban initially had demanded the release of Taliban prisoners in exchange for the release of the hostages. But during negotiations South Korean officials told Taliban representatives they had no authority to release the Taliban prisoners, since the prisoners were being held by the United States military and other governments, Cheon said. No money was involved in the agreement, Cheon added.

“While I rejoice that terrorists are releasing innocent victims, I am truly saddened by the conditions to which the government of South Korea has agreed,” said Daniel R. Heimbach, who worked in the first Bush administration and currently serves as professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “Matters of international justice should not be dictated by those who threaten the lives of aid workers motivated only by love.

“Christian aid workers and missionaries put their lives on the line every day and, while Christians believe that physical life is precious, we also believe that sharing the Good News of eternal life is worth vastly more. The government of South Korea has acquiesced to terms no Christian can accept and no one called of Jesus Christ can obey.”

The U.S.-led coalition drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of 2001, but the Taliban has been trying to make a comeback, partly through kidnappings. Earlier this year Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed to swap five Taliban prisoners for a kidnapped Italian journalist, the Los Angeles Times noted.

In July two South Korean hostages — 42-year-old church staff member Hyung Kyu Bae and 29-year-old Sung Min Shim — were executed by the Taliban when it became apparent the U.S. and Karzai were not going to release any Taliban prisoners.

“I believe that the two who were killed earlier were martyred for their faith in the Lord Jesus, and I believe were welcomed into heaven with open arms such as the martyr Stephen,” Page said.
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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