One of the big news stories in Korea right now is the kidnapping of 23 South Korean "volunteers" in Afghanistan by the Taliban. When I first heard this story I was a little disturbed because it brings Korea's participation in the War on "Terror" to the forefront (although the hostages are not part of the military, one of the original demands of the Taliban was the removal of Korean military forces from Afghanistan). I don't really fear suicide bombings going off in Seoul anytime soon but this type of press makes me feel that we may be heading into the crossfire. What makes this even more upsetting is that Korea may face retaliation for the actions of a minority group who displayed an arrogant disregard for authority and a complete lack of understanding and common sense.
A majority of the Korean population do not practice a religion. Most people here follow Neo-Confucius traditions (which causes a whole separate set of headaches), but they don't really consider themselves as followers of a religion. Buddha's birthday gets the same number of days off as Christmas here. However, there has been a recent trend of heavy proselytizing by the evangelical Christians here and it is spreading fairly rapidly.
The 23 people kidnapped in Afghanistan traveled as a volunteer group from the Sammeul Church in Bundang, Korea (a relatively high class suburb of Seoul). The church has repeatedly stated that they were there only for a medical mission and not to evangelize. It isn't clear that they sent any people of medical relevance, however it is clear that one of the members of the entourage was a pastor. One of the Taliban spokesperson justified the kidnapping (not that this type of thing can ever be justified) by outright stating that the group was there doing missionary work which is prohibited by the regional laws. Recent reports have stated that the group had actually visited one of the important mosques in Afghanistan and started singing Christian hymns. If these actions are indeed true, then the statements by the Church denying any proselytizing seem dishonest.
It has been speculated that the real reason these people are sent on these missions is to improve the status of their church in a competition for religious zeal. Many times people come back from these trips with videos and photos as proof of their devoutness and to place on their church website to attract more converts. The religious reputation generally translates to more prestigious followers and bigger tithes. Many times the missionaries ignore painfully obvious indicators of danger in this quest for self aggrandizement. The picture below is of several of the kidnapped missionaries standing in front of a notice at the airport which informs them that going to Afghanistan is dangerous. Some missionaries actually gloat about bypassing restrictions that prevent them from going to dangerous regions.
The Korean government has now banned all trips to Afghanistan and is asking them not to issue any visas to Korean citizens. This incident has caused an outcry against sending missionary groups to dangerous areas.
It also has people reconsidering if the risks of these "missions" are worth taking.
Personally, I hope for the safe return of the hostages, but I can't help think of how misguided, selfish, and hypocritical these people were. I think individuals and groups should have the freedom to decide their own risks, but they shouldn't be able to take unnecessary risks when it will detrimentally effect the self-preservation of others. The missionaries were already taking considerable risk by going to a war-torn region, but they fed fuel to the fire by using a dis-genuine religious reason in an already religiously sensitive situation. This has blown up remarkably badly, and other people may now be in danger because of their selfish desires.