It is not surprising that a number of Muslim governments and civil society organizations have condemned the abduction of South Korean nationals by the Taliban in Afghanistan on 19 July 2007. The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) itself has taken a strong stand and has called for the immediate and unconditional release of all the hostages.
Needless to say, the abduction is a blatant violation of Islamic ethics. Even when a nation is under foreign occupation, the kidnapping of civilians is prohibited. What has made the Taliban s action even more morally reprehensible is the cold-blooded murder of two of the 23 hostages in the last two weeks.
Their murder has made it more urgent to secure the release of the remaining hostages. It is unlikely that either the Afghan government in Kabul or the US Administration will be able to achieve this. They have made it very clear that they will not exchange Taliban linked prisoners in their jails for the Korean hostages. This is why there may be no alternative but to allow the Korean government to negotiate directly with the Taliban. After all what is at stake are the lives of 21 mostly young people who may be killed any time by their ruthless captors.
It is significant that while the Korean people are traumatized by the hostage crisis, a number of Koreans have raised some searching questions about the overseas role of some Korean groups which have not been highlighted in the mainstream global media. On web sites and blogs, these Koreans are asking whether their fellow citizens should mix humanitarian aid work with Christian missionary activities in foreign lands such as Afghanistan. By so doing, are they creating unnecessary tensions in the region?
All the hostages, it should be noted, are members of the Saemmul Community Church, a Presbyterian congregation in Bundang, a suburb of Seoul. Many of them are medical professionals or English language teachers who, according to Joseph Park, the Mission Director of the Christian Council of Korea, were involved in short-term evangelistic and aid work in Afghanistan. Last year, it would be recalled, some 1200 Korean Christian evangelists arrived in Kabul in the pretext of holding a peace festival . Their presence sparked protests from the preponderantly Muslim population leading to their deportation.
The Saemmul Church has denied that the hostages had undertaken any missionary work and had only provided medical and other voluntary assistance to the poor. This of course reflects a familiar pattern in the evangelical work of not only Korean but also other Christian groups in various parts of the world. The trust and confidence of the local community is first secured through humanitarian efforts which are then followed by missionary activities aimed at winning converts.
It is not widely known that South Korea has between 12,000 and 17,000 evangelists in more than 160 countries. The Christian Science Monitor (28 July 2007) describes these evangelists as one of the most aggressive armies of Christian missionaries on earth. Only the US sends out more —-46,000 by some estimates. Money, college scholarships, trips abroad and other such material allurements, it is alleged, have played a major role in these evangelical drives to recruit people into the Christian faith.
Evangelism of this sort is often associated with that movement in contemporary Christianity that scholars have labeled The Christian Right . Apart from wholehearted endorsement of neo-liberal capitalist policies in the domestic sphere, the Christian Right is totally committed to the Washington led attempt to establish global hegemony. It explains its support for the invasion of Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq. Like the neo-conservatives around President George Bush, the Christian Right also believes that US hegemony over the Middle East is vital to secure control over oil and to enhance the position of Israel. Hence its affinity to Zionism.
Since 9-11, Christian Right evangelism has made huge inroads into countries such Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam and China. Afghanistan and Iraq are special targets. It will be remembered that in 2004 a South Korean interpreter in Iraq who was also a Christian missionary was beheaded by militants.
In a sense, the current Christian Right push is its second major thrust in the last 30 years. In the eighties when Ronald Reagan was US President, there was a concerted drive to disseminate the ideology in Latin America in order to weaken progressive Catholic ideals which championed the cause of the poor and marginalized known as Liberation Theology. There is no need to emphasize that Reagan, like the present US President, was inclined to the Christian Right.
There is no denying that the growing impact of Christian Right evangelism is a threat to the relatively harmonious relations that mainline Catholic and Protestant communities have built with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists in much of Asia. In fact, more than a handful of Catholic and Protestant scholars and theologians have expressed their uneasiness about this sort of evangelism. Expectedly, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders in a number of countries have reacted to the aggressiveness of the Christian Right by either formulating legislation aimed at curbing its activities or through outright denunciations of the movement.
The tragic Korean hostage crisis has brought to the surface a fault-line in the relations among the different religious communities which has for the most part remained concealed from the public eye. Let us pray that the resolution of the crisis will lead to improved inter-religious ties.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffaris President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) based in Malaysia. The commentary was published with his permission.