Missions Isn't Safe
This summer, associate pastor Bae Hyung-kyu led his mostly female medical team from South Korea into Afghanistan. The plan was to alleviate physical and spiritual suffering. But Taliban terrorists had another agenda. On July 19, radical Islamic insurgents kidnapped the 23 South Koreans traveling by bus through southern Afghanistan.
During 40-plus days of captivity, team members from Saemmul Community Church, located south of Seoul, were relocated repeatedly, beaten, and made to endure forced labor.
The Muslim Taliban also tried to convert the Christian hostages by force. When Pastor Bae Hyung-kyu refused, his captors put 10 bullets in his head, chest, and stomach. They also murdered another hostage before freeing the restafter controversial direct negotiations with the South Korean government.
Blaming the Victims
In exchange for the release of the church workers, South Korea banned missionaries from traveling to Afghanistan, paid a $20 million ransom (according to the Taliban), and announced it would remove 200 troops from Afghanistan by year's enda decision the government had already made prior to the abductions.
Missions experts say missionaries around the world are probably more at risk now of being kidnapped for ransom. Certainly the prospect of any government telling Christian missionaries where they can and cannot go is a huge problem.
So guess who is taking the brunt of the verbal backlash in the wake of their release? It's not the Taliban, nor even the South Korean government. It's the freed missionaries and their church. One Korean newspaper opined, "Religious groups should realize once and for all that dangerous missionary and volunteer activities in Islamic countries including Afghanistan not only harm Korea's national objectives, but also put other Koreans under a tremendous amount of duress." Another stated, "Religious organizations are asked to refrain from engaging in excessive missionary activities in risky areas, which will cause anxiety for the people and the government as well." Under incredible pressure, Saemmul Community Church and the hostages publicly apologized for embarrassing the nation.
Even the World Evangelical Alliance's Religious Liberty Commission provided tepid support at best. While denouncing hostage-taking, its statement concluded, "We suggest that organizations with workers in other countries should pay careful regard to security warnings issued by their government." Absent was any acknowledgement of the priority or right to engage in Christian ministry, including evangelism.
In the wake of this ordeal, the Protestant Christians of South Koreawho have risen to prominence in recent years as an evangelical missions powerhouseare doing some agonizing but necessary soul-searching about what they could have done differently. This painful episode provides an excellent opportunity for Korean Christians to add greater knowledge to their inspiring missions work.
One area that requires immediate attention is planning for the possibility of kidnappings and terrorist attacks. In recent years, American missionaries have been forced to ramp up their contingency plans following a series of murders and kidnappings from Colombia to Lebanon to Pakistan. Since 9/11, we all live in a more dangerous world. We all must address whether or under what circumstances a ransom will be paid; whether, when, and how to evacuate missions personnel; and how to plan missions operations and provide adequate security.
Waiting for a crisis before considering these matters is much too late. We hope that experienced Western missions organizations and agencies such as Crisis Consulting International will come alongside our Korean brothers and sisters to offer their hard-won insights.