August 2, 2007
The Economist

Korean Christians and the Taliban

"GOD'S work has to be carried out, at any cost, even death." Such was the Taliban's grim justification behind the murder this week of a second of the 23 Christian-Korean aid workers kidnapped last month en route from Kabul to Kandahar. The weeks since their abduction have brought unmet demands, a papal plea, a botched hostage release and an emotional appeal from the hostages' relations to the American embassy in Seoul. On August 1st the latest deadline set for the Afghan government passed, without the release demanded by the hostage-takers of their jailed comrades. There were rumours of prisoner exchanges, ransoms and renewed rescue operations.

The Koreans, too, thought they were doing God's work. The South Korean government vehemently denies that Pastor Bae Hyung-kyu, whose bullet-ridden body was found on July 25th, and his flock were engaged in any form of evangelical or missionary work. But the Taliban say they were. Most Afghans have long followed a conservative interpretation of Islam. Polished toenails might now peek out from burqas on Kabul streets, but the Afghan public continues to challenge any slight against Islam. Even the appearance of proselytising Christianity is enough to foment widespread rancour.

Mr Bae and his mostly-female missionary group are affiliated with a Presbyterian congregation found in the affluent suburbs of Seoul. Initially embraced in the early 20th century as a means of asserting Korean identity against Shinto Japan and Buddhist China, Christianity is now a symbol of status, and, along with capitalism and democracy, part of an ideological trinity enthusiastically adopted from the West. By 1995 Christianity had surpassed Buddhism as South Korea's most popular religion. Roh Moo-hyun, the current president, and his two immediate predecessors are all Christians.

In recent years Korea's religious zeal has crossed its borders, sending a flood of salvation to destinations beyond. With roughly 16,000 Christian missionaries abroad, Korea is second only to America when it comes to spreading the gospel. . . .


Mark O'Keefe, "Christianizing the Enemy," Newhouse News, March 27, 2003

Richard T. Cooper, "General Casts War in Religious Terms," Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2003

[The kidnap of South Korean church volunteers by the Taliban has caused deep divisions back home, forcing into the open a dark truth: many Koreans resent Christians and the speed with which they have become a dominant force in the upper echelons of society. . . .

Korea was a Buddhist country 120 years ago, with only a few thousand Christians, mostly Catholics, who faced intense persecution. By the 1960s, Korea had about a million Christians, but their numbers exploded in the decades that followed.

Christians now make up 31 per cent of South Korea's population. At night, the Seoul skyline glitters with video billboards and neon lights but all the commercial illumination is rivalled by the thousands of bright red crosses that shine from the churches found on almost every street corner.

Korea now has more than 36,000 churches, and many of them are loud and proud with a firm commitment to missionary work and a passionate zeal for evangelism.

. . . the Yeoido Full Gospel church in central Seoul, which has 750,000 regular attendees, making its congregation the largest in the Christian world.

Korea has 16,000 missionaries working overseas, second only to the US.

The chairmen of all South Korea's top-10 companies are Christians, as are the majority of National Assembly members.

If the Taliban kills another one of its hostages there will be great sadness here, but also more anger against Christians. A posting on Naver [Korea's leading portal] earlier this week gives a taste of the degree of resentment some Koreans feel: "The missionaries are getting what they deserve," wrote a woman who described herself as a secular Buddhist. "Maybe now some of them will stop trying to ram Jesus down our throats."--Daniel Jeffreys, "South Korea turns against 'arrogant' Christian hostages," Independent, August 4, 2007]

K. Connie Kang, "Korean and Muslim Americans in L.A. seek the release of 21 aid workers held captive by rebels in Afghanistan," Los Angeles Times, August 7, 2007

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