Thursday, September 06, 2007

Serving God, profiting Taleban

Missionaries from South Korea travel to remote and dangerous lands, intent on spreading their Christian faith. Christianity contributed to modernization in South Korea, and missionaries often link their beliefs with the country’s miraculous economic growth. In July, the Taliban kidnapped 23 young Christian volunteers in Afghanistan, killing two before releasing the remaining hostages in late August. Conditions of release include South Korea withdrawing all its missionaries and NGO workers from Afghanistan. The incident, including a Taliban claim that the South Korean government paid a ransom, has divided churches and the public at large – and could trigger debate on the proper role of churches in international affairs. The US has stressed that its war on terror, started in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks, is not a war against Islam. But Christian missionaries enter conflict-ridden Islamic nations on the heels of invading troops, raising questions among Muslims. Preaching – and expecting people to abandon lifelong beliefs – is not a priority for war-torn nations. – YaleGlobal

Sep 6, 2007
Serving God, profiting Taleban
By Shim Jae Hoon
IN SEOUL - THEY go anywhere - from the African jungles to the tribal villages of Afghanistan.

Self-designated foot soldiers of Jesus Christ, South Korean missionaries travel the globe, looking for souls to save with the good book in one hand and cash in another.

They carry a special message mixing religion and politics, insisting that the Gospel saved South Korea from communism. Belief in Jesus not only saves souls, but also delivers nations from poverty.

But, as alleged in press reports, if it turns out to be true that the government, working on behalf of the missionaries kidnapped in Afghanistan, had paid millions of dollars in ransom for their release on Sunday, then the church work may have merely alleviated the poverty of a terrorist group.

The global mission of spreading Christian faith has run smack into the United States and Nato global mission against terrorism.

A Reuters report quoting a senior Taleban official as saying that a ransom of more than US$20 million (S$30 million) was paid to secure the hostages' release, though unconfirmed, is sure to add fuel to growing criticism of missionaries and expose the growing complexity of an old globalising force.

The kidnapping of the 23 Christian aid workers in mid-July, two of whom were killed before the release of the rest, has revived criticism of missionaries' no-holds- barred proselytising.

The zeal of some Korean churches in their work overseas, which often offends local sensitivities, has made the missionaries controversial at home and abroad. Some countries such as China and Cambodia, with a historical view that foreign missionaries are agents of imperialism, have already banned them.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry frowns on missionaries going to places where they are not officially welcome and restricts travel to war-torn countries such as Iraq and Somalia.

But eager to serve, some ignore the warnings, risking capture and death; Mr Kim Son Il, a young, novice evangelical worker, was beheaded by Iraqi insurgents in 2004.

This time, besides possibly paying ransom, the government obtained the release of the missionaries by promising to keep them and all South Korean non-governmental organisation workers out of Afghanistan as well as pull out the country's troops.

Officially, South Korea has not responded to speculation about ransom payment, which is alleged to have come from the hostages' church, Saemmul Presbyterian.

Church officials have said they plan to repay the government for airfare, hospitalisation and other costs incurred in the release. But if reports of a ransom are confirmed, it would trigger public outcry, increasing taxpayer anger over missionaries visiting danger zones explicitly prohibited by the government.

The news of the Aug 29 agreement will not quell the debate already raging within churches. While the country's two biggest Protestant groups - the liberal-oriented Korean National Council of Churches and conservative Christian Council of Korea - have issued statements accepting Taleban terms, critics suggest that missionaries pause and moderate their course.

Overall, such changes, they say, would require Korean missionaries to avoid many war-torn regions, especially in places where Islam is the dominant religion. They would have to show greater respect for local cultures and religions. Mission emphasis should shift from total converts reported to pragmatic projects. Thus humanitarian projects - such as providing medical, child-care or education services in Asia and Africa - should be given priority.

Voices within the church have called for moderation: Korean missionaries are 'too loud and aggressive in their ways and self-centred', one unidentified missionary worker writes in, a church blog.

'Sometimes, they confuse what they do with what they believe God wants them to do.'

One critic, Mr Ryu Sang Tae, is exceptional in that he is not afraid to publicly challenge the church establishment. A former school chaplain in Seoul and author of a book calling for sweeping reform of Korea's Protestant establishments, he told Yonhap News Agency that by insisting on 'recklessly and aggressively converting people of different religions in different countries, in disregard of local sensitivities', the missionaries run the risk of 'aggravating, not ameliorating, the existing conflicts in parts of the world they operate'.

Koreans largely support the call for moderation. One Seoul newspaper poll shows 64.5 per cent of readers saying Korean missionaries should stay out of countries hostile to Christians. A further 85.3 per cent say Korean missionaries should exercise restraint in their work.

In temperament, Korean missionary activities reflect the country's aggressive outward-looking economic push. Expanding economic ties have enticed more Koreans overseas. Like their European counterparts in history, Korean missionaries followed traders to serve their own growing communities abroad.

Today, according to one church estimate, there are more than 16,000 Korean missionaries from some 500 groups in 170 locations. In sheer numbers, they are second only to US missionaries.

Their pattern of growth resembles the economic expansion back home. An obsession with numbers and size has weakened the moral foundation of what Korean church historians say is an otherwise splendid achievement.

Catholicism came to Korea in 1783 and Protestant representatives in 1884; today, one in five Koreans claims to be a Christian. The nation of 44 million people has 8.7 million registered Protestants and 2.9 million Catholics, along with 10 million Buddhists, practising and nominal.

The speedy conversion can be attributed to several factors: The church initially succeeded in focusing on social alienation in a rapidly industrialising nation. Unlike in the Philippines, a foreign religion was not imposed on Koreans by conquerors. The earliest Korean Catholics were modernisers, converted in China of their own volition. American Protestant missionaries came with the consent of the monarch, who welcomed modern education and medicine. Korean Christians played a pioneering role in the modernisation of their country.

But such success is the root of today's problems. Obsessed with over-achievement, pursuing quantity over quality, the churches are often criticised for placing secular interests above spiritual commitment. This trend is evident in Seoul, where most neighbourhoods boast at least three churches, all fiercely competing for converts.

Priesthood in Korea is no longer just God's calling, but a job, with some clerics drawing hefty salaries, plus bonuses and chauffeur-driven cars. At night, the Seoul skyline burns bright with crosses, a city set in a forest of churches.

Critics suggest that vigorous missionary activities abroad serve to cover up the churches' manifold problems at home, including some corrupt and divisive institutions.

Small wonder then that many church groups seek to expand abroad, keeping idealistic new generations connected to the church by inspiring overseas service. Most of the aid workers kidnapped in Afghanistan are in their 20s and 30s, with training in nursing or computer skills. To well-intentioned youths, service in dangerous Afghanistan was more inspiring than high-pressure competition at home.

Within Korea itself, the missionary zeal has earned scant sympathy. 'Why go overseas when there are plenty of things to do at home?' says one taxi-driver, reacting to news of the release.

The image of rich churches sending young adults to dangerous regions has generated only resentment.

The government and churches have not recalled missionaries working in other conflict-ridden areas, but insist that those in places such as Somalia or Iraq move to safe locations.

The Afghan incident prompts not only a hard look at Korea's overseas missions, but also much-needed reflection on the state of the country's religious establishment. If the report of the ransom payment is confirmed, it would deal a blow to the increasingly difficult task of the US and Nato forces to defeat the resurgent Taleban forces.

The writer is a Seoul-based journalist and columnist.

Rights: YaleGlobal Online

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