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Prayer urged for 21 Christian aid workers held hostage

WASHINGTON (BP)–With two South Korean men having been executed, 21 young Koreans remained hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan at the two-week point Aug. 2 following the Christian aid workers’ kidnapping July 19.

Two women hostages are critically ill and most of the others are sick, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported Aug. 3, but it did not provide details.

In Washington, an official with the Institute on Religion and Democracy sounded a call Aug. 3 for the media and for Christians to speak up for the Korean captives.

“Why is it that the media finds the brief incarceration of Paris Hilton worthy of ’round-the-clock vigils but spares little ink and little air time to tell the world more about these two men who gave their lives while serving the people of Afghanistan?” Faith McDonnell, IRD director of religious liberty programs, asked.

“Even more disturbing than lack of media coverage, though, is the tepid response of the churches to the plight of their brothers and sisters from South Korea,” McDonnell continued in the statement.

“No matter what issues currently occupy Christians in the U.S., they should shift their focus to Afghanistan right now and join the churches in South Korea in vigilant prayer for the remaining hostages.” McDonnell said the crisis is a chance “to witness to the world that the body of Christ is one worldwide body.”

“Christians in the West should always be praying for their persecuted brothers and sisters — but particularly in this time of crisis, they should look beyond their own interests and pray for the hostages. I challenge Christians to pray daily for the South Koreans, and to include them as a prayer item on church Web sites, e-mail conferences and the blog sites of individuals.”

The two men who have been killed by the Taliban thus far are:

— Bae Hyung Kyu, 42, a minister with the Sammul Presbyterian Church near Seoul who was slain by 10 AK-47 shots July 25, his birthday. Bae worked with unmarried university graduates, helping prepare them for volunteer trips for aid work in developing countries, according to Compass, a persecution watchdog organization based in Santa Ana, Calif. Bae leaves behind a wife and 9-year-old daughter, Compass reported. (Some news reports have spelled the name of the church “Saemmul.”)

— Shim Sung Min, 29, who had left a job in information technology to seek a graduate degree in agriculture out of a concern for poor Korean farmers impacted by globalization, a church member told Compass. Shim had been teaching Sunday School classes for the handicapped, the church member also said.

While the South Korean volunteer team, 16 of whom are women, have been criticized in some quarters for venturing into Afghanistan’s volatility, an Afghan convert to Christianity told Compass he admires the commitment they evidenced and hopes that a Christian presence can continue in the country.

“During the Taliban regime, the main expatriate group in Afghanistan was Christians,” the Afghan told Compass. “They were here to help Afghanistan. … No one else had the guts to come and help this war-torn country.”

The convert said Christians are called to serve -– and sometimes at a very high cost.

“Thank you for coming to Afghanistan to serve my people,” Compass quoted the Afghan as saying to the hostages and other Korean Christians who had served in Afghanistan. “Thank you for letting the world know, ‘Don’t forget Afghanistan.’ Your Afghan brothers in faith are praying for you daily.”

The corpses of Bae and Shim have been returned to South Korea, Compass reported.

Taliban spokesmen threatened more executions by midnight Aug. 2 if the Afghan government continued to refuse demands to Taliban prisoners, Compass reported, noting that Taliban leaders later stated that no one had been hurt.

A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, told the Yonhap News Agency July 31, “If the negotiations do not go well, [the militants] will kill the male hostages, and then it will be the female hostages’ turn.”

Yonhap, in an Aug. 3 report, cited informed sources in reporting that South Korean officials are negotiating with the Taliban “for the venue for face-to-face talks” on the fate of 21 surviving hostages, “amid conflicting reports on imminent military operations to rescue the hostages.”

South Korean officials would not officially confirm efforts to establish direct talks with the kidnappers, Yonhap reported, but said they are trying to maintain “direct or indirect contact” with the captors.

Negotiations for medical treatment for the sick hostages at a Kabul hospital also have not yet been successful, Yonhap reported.

“The hospital proposed to the Taliban specific conditions for the treatment of the Korean patients, but the militants refused them,” a reporter with the Afghan Islamic Press told Yonhap on condition of anonymity.

Cheon Ho-seon, a spokesman for South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, said a medical team from the South Korean military contingent stationed in Afghanistan is on standby near the southern Afghan province of Ghazni, where the Koreans were taken hostage. “The team has been on standby since the kidnapping took place,” he said.

The 23-member Korean aid team was traveling on a charter bus from Kandahar to the capital, Kabul, when armed men stopped them July 19 in the Ghazni province’s Qarabagh district. The volunteers had arrived in Afghanistan on July 13 and were scheduled to return home July 23.

Compass, in a July 30 news report, recounted that the team had spent three days assisting three Korean women who were engaged in long-term aid work in northern Afghanistan. The volunteers were traveling back to Kabul but went on to Kandahar by bus when no flights were available. The group had planned to spend several days volunteering at a hospital and kindergarten in Kandahar where a husband-and-wife doctor team and a single Korean woman teacher are working. The two doctors treat up to 150 patients a day, Compass quoted a member of the Korean church as saying.

An analyst for the Washington-based International Christian Concern persecution watchdog likened the incident to the 2001 kidnapping of American missionaries Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, who were held by the Taliban for three months. “It was in the very same area of Afghanistan that these two kidnappings happened,” Jeremy Sewell said in a July 20 news release. “While Mercer and Curry’s story ended happily, it was only because anti-Taliban forces attacked the prison.

“Under the Taliban, it is absolutely illegal to preach Christianity. This courageous South Korean missions team is going to experience the ultimate test of their faith.”
Compiled by Art Toalston.

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