SEOUL, South Korea (BP)–A large sign outside the multi-story Shinsegae department store in downtown Seoul reads, “Pray for the safe return of the hostages in Afghanistan.” It is written in Korean, Arabic and English.
But as Korean Christians pray, church and mission agency leaders are struggling with how best to adapt to environments and cultures where a Christian presence is unwelcome and often dangerous. They are discussing how best to complete the task of taking the Gospel to “the ends of the earth,” while protecting those under their watch who have been called to difficult places.
And, at the request of the Korean government, plans are underway to remove all Korean Christian workers from Afghanistan.
“We hope that this is only temporary,” said Jae Kyeong Lee, president of the Korean Foreign Mission Board of the Korea Baptist Convention, “and that we will have opportunity to send workers back soon. But we want to be sensitive to the safety of the hostages and to the request of our government.”
The Korean government currently is negotiating with Taliban militants over the fate of 19 hostages remaining in Afghanistan. A group of 23 Korean aid workers, mostly women, from Saemmul Presbyterian Church was kidnapped by the Taliban on July 19 while riding aboard a bus in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan.
Two of the male hostages, 42-year-old church staff member Hyung Kyu Bae and 29-year-old Sung Min Shim, were executed by the Taliban. Two of the women volunteers, Ji Na Kim, 32, and Kyung Ja Kim, 37, were released and returned to Seoul on Aug. 17.
According to the JoongAng Daily News, both women expressed their thanks to the government and the people of Korea and apologized for causing “all this worry” during a news conference that lasted less than five minutes. The two women answered no questions and were whisked away by security guards and government officials. They will remain under government protection for an unspecified period.
JoongAng News has reported that the Korean government is concerned that extensive news coverage could jeopardize ongoing negotiations with the Taliban for the release of the remaining hostages.
It is this same concern that is prompting calls from the government for all Korean Christian workers to withdraw from Afghanistan and for churches in Korea to avoid public prayer services or other public expressions of support for the hostages.
While other Christian workers in Afghanistan understand the government’s concerns, they are struggling over the departure of their Korean friends. One worker who asked not to be identified said, “We are grieving the loss of our Korean brothers and sisters. These people were doing amazing work here and amazing work for the Kingdom. I know that there is a lot of criticism of the Korean hostages that are being held, but they are such sweet, gentle people who came here with pure hearts to truly help.”
Lee is praying that church and agency leaders will grow through this crisis in spite of criticism from some quarters against missions efforts. “We recognize that our work cannot be stopped in spite of martyrdom and that we must continue to send out those who are called,” Lee said. “However, as leaders, we need to be wiser and more mature in our sending policies. We need to do more research into the areas where workers are called and we need to be more prepared to deal with crises such as this one.”
Since the early 1900s, the Korean church has sent more than 14,000 Christian workers to countries around the world. In recent years, South Korea has become second only to the United States as a mission-sending country. The Korean Foreign Mission Board, for example, has 580 workers in 48 countries.
“Korean mission agencies have a goal to send 100,000 workers to countries around the world by 2030,” Lee said. “In the past we have bragged about the willingness of our people to go to dangerous places with little thought to what that danger might actually involve. Now, we know that we must also concern ourselves with the safety of our personnel and show greater maturity as we approach our task.”
Still, Lee is committed to achieving the vision God has given to Korean Christians to share God’s love around the world. “There are 7 million Koreans scattered across 184 countries. My prayer is that the Christians among them will take an active role in reaching the world where they live,” he said.
Just across the Han River from Lee’s office is a cemetery designated for missionaries and their children who died in Korea. Some of the tombstones date as far back as the late 1800s and early 1900s. At that time, Korea was undeveloped and life was difficult. Still, those early missionaries translated the Bible into Korean and built schools, hospitals and churches. Lee described one tombstone in particular that reads, “If I had 1,000 lives to give, I would give them all for Korea.”
Lee said he is asking fellow Christians “to pray for us to cope with this crisis and any others that may come our way. Pray that we will be able to continue to send workers around the world with the same spirit as those early Christian pioneers who risked their lives for the sake of the Korean people.”
Lee also is continuing to pray for a peaceful resolution to the hostage crisis with no further loss of life. He is praying that this experience will not dampen the enthusiasm of the captives or others to share God’s love cross-culturally, and he is encouraged by reports that he has heard. He related that one hostage originally slated to be released for health reasons recommended that another hostage be released in her place. “This tells me that they are still living by faith,” Lee said.
Ann Lovell is a media worker based in Seoul, South Korea, with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.