South Korea’s missionary ban stymies some local churches

It’s been more than a week since the South Korean government vowed to ban its own evangelical Christian missionaries from visiting Afghanistan, and local Korean Christians are still musing over how to handle their quandary.

“We believe the gospel is very powerful, and the Korean church is growing very rapidly, so we want to go on mission,” said Philip Yoongi Jang, senior pastor at Korean United Presbyterian Church in Edmonds.

South Korean churches send out more than 15,000 missionaries to evangelize around the world second only to the number of missionaries sent by U.S. churches. That zeal for international evangelism traveled with South Korean immigrants when they settled in southern Snohomish County.

“Korean people have that passion,” Jang said.

Jang’s 500-member congregation has sent missionaries around the world, but when 23 South Korean missionaries working in Afghanistan were captured by the Taliban, their door to that country was closed. In order to secure the missionaries’ release, the South Korean government agreed to forbid its people from evangelizing in Afghanistan.

“At this time, we have to stop sending missionaries there,” Jang said. “But God will give us another chance and opportunity for Afghanistan. We will wait until the door is open.”

South Korea’s governmental edict is the first of its kind, said Samuel Moffett, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary who was born to American missionaries in South Korea and evangelized there himself for 26 years.

“The South Korean government is trying hard to build up its relationship with North Korea, and in the process it’s been treating Christianity a little more severely,” Moffett said. “It’s political, not religious.”

South Korean officials negotiated the release of 19 missionaries late last month after they’d been held by the Taliban for about six weeks. Two were set free earlier. One was killed during the captivity.

When the freed hostages arrived in Seoul, they publicly apologized, adding that they owe “a big debt.”

The missionaries were right to apologize, Moffett said.

“This particular mission didn’t spend enough time preparing or finding out what they were getting into,” he said.

Even so, the South Korean government responded too harshly by cracking down on all missions agencies, Moffett said.

The ban has spurred Onnuri Church, a Korean evangelical church in Bothell, to think creatively about its missionaries. Some church members are South Korean citizens, and others are U.S. citizens, said Jimmy Jun, the church’s missions pastor.

“It may be a good time to send Korean American people who are allowed legally to work there,” he said. “That might be our new focus.”

The church has sponsored one of its Korean members as a missionary in Afghanistan for the past four years, but she was on leave to share her work with churches in South Korea when the hostage crisis began.

That missionary won’t return until the South Korean government allows her to.

Eighteen other Onnuri Church members are currently working in countries throughout central Asia, a region the church has “adopted,” said Jun, who visited Afghanistan in 2001.

“We still believe people need help there in Afghanistan,” Jun said. “We’ll try to continue that work if possible.”

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or kkapralos@heraldnet.com.

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