Anger mixes with concern for hostages

Some criticize decision by Korean Christians to go to Afghanistan

August 03, 2007|By New York Times News Service

SEOUL, South Korea -- As the South Korean hostage crisis entered its third week, sympathy here for the 21 people remaining in Taliban captivity in Afghanistan has been tempered by anger over their decision to travel to such a dangerous region.

"My friends and I first wondered, `Why did the church send those people to a place the government had advised them not to travel?'" said Shim Sae-rom, a political science major at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. "What were they thinking?"

When 23 South Koreans, most of them women in their 20s and 30s, were kidnapped July 19, the Taliban took an entire society hostage. Television networks in South Korea interrupt programs for updates. The Internet is full of emotional comments about a country -- and a group -- most here had seldom heard of until American troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and South Korea later contributed forces.

"The shock and helplessness South Koreans feel is the same kind that a family feels when its child is kidnapped," said Jun Hee-kyung, an official at Citizens Union of Better Society, a civic group in Seoul. "People should stop assigning blame at least for the time being and focus on how we can save the hostages."

In Afghanistan yesterday, South Korean and Afghan officials searched for a meeting place after agreeing to talk face to face with the Taliban about the fate of the remaining 21 captives, said Waheedullah Mujadidi, leader of the Afghan delegation that is negotiating with the Taliban, the Associated Press reported. Two male hostages have been killed.

The government and Saemmul Presbyterian Church, to which the hostages belong, have emphasized that the captives, who are nurses, English teachers and homemakers, went to Afghanistan, an Islamic country, to provide aid at hospitals and schools, not to spread Christianity.

Still, some bloggers have angrily criticized churches that have sent people to some of the world's most dangerous places. The censure is highly unusual for South Korea, which embraced Christianity in the past century, in what once was a predominantly Buddhist country.

"Yes, let's pray for their safe return, only if to see them kneel down and apologize to the people for the Protestants' arrogant and blatant behavior," one person wrote on one Internet bulletin board that Naver.com, the country's largest Internet portal, opened to invite condolences for the two hostages who were killed.

"People who have been unhappy with the way churches here proselytized launched what can be seen as very cruel attacks against those hostages, who are in a life-or-death situation," said Kim Dong-choon, a sociology professor at SungKongHoe University in Seoul. "They wonder why the whole country should go through this ordeal just because of them."

South Koreans also began asking why their country had sent troops to Afghanistan in the first place and why they should suffer in a war that is the business of the United States.

A delegation of eight South Korean lawmakers went to the U.S. to ask it and the United Nations to help end the standoff. The lawmakers decided to make the trip after a South Korean plea for "flexibility" on the Taliban demand to exchange the hostages for Taliban prisoners had been rejected.

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