07/25/2007, 00.00
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Glimmers of hope for 23 young Christian hostages

by Pino Cazzaniga
Direct negotiations between the Taliban and Seoul apparently ongoing, in attempts to secure the release of the 15 women who are part of the group. The government had advised the protestant group not to undertake any initiatives in the war torn country.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – Glimmers of hope for the fate of the 23 young South Koreans, in the hands of Afghan Taliban, are reported in today’s papers.  Yonhap (government agency) writes of direct negotiations between the Taliban and Korean government.  A delegation from the Foreign Ministry led by Undersecretary Cho Jung-pyo has been in Afghanistan for days and has succeeded in delaying the ultimatum, while it hopes to secure release of 15 women hostages.  The Korean Times, expresses hope regarding the success of this initiative, as not only Muslim culture, but also the local tribal code (Pasthun) forbids the harming of women 

The situation has been protracted since the afternoon of July 19th, when a group of Taliban guerrillas blocked a mini bus carrying the 23 young Koreans from Kandahar, in the South to the capital Kabul. They are all members of Seoul Community, a young protestant church, founded in 1998 in the Bundang suburb of Seoul, by Pastor Park Eun-.jo. Since 2004 he has also held the post of the Korea Foundation for World Aid, which he created to help poor nations. Afghanistan is one of the chosen nations despite the government’s attempts to dissuade their mission.

The captives are university students.  The New York Times, citing Taliban sources, writes “the militants would have immediately killed the hostages on site if there had not been women”. This observation was confirmed by Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, official spokesman for the guerrillas who added “the Taliban know that these Korean Christians came to Afghanistan to convert good Muslims”.

On July 23rd the Council for Religion and Peace (KCRP), a coalition of seven religious groups which includes Protestants Catholics and Buddhists, released a declaration stating that “the hostages are innocent people who worked in nurseries and hospitals without any political motive”.  But precedent has convinced the Taliban otherwise.  In August 2006 a protestant missionary group organised a “peace march” in Kabul with the participation of 2300 Christians: the Afghan government succeeded in blocking it at the last moment.

Memories of the brutal slaying of the young Korean Christian, Kim Sun-Il, in 224 in Iraq, by Al-Qaeda, was not sufficient in moderating the pastor’s zeal.  He had told the young people that the alarmism regarding Afghan insecurity was unjustifiable, even if the alarm was raised by the National intelligence service (NIS) in Seoul who had uncovered evidence in February regarding a plan to kidnap Korean citizens.

Kandahar is the stronghold of Islamic fundamentalism.  “The Taliban there – writes the Korea Times – are obliged to memorise the Koran from the age of five, and they are educated to hate other religions, Christianity in particular.  Since losing power in 2001 with the US army intervention, they have become increasingly zealous and fierce in their opposition to foreigners”.

Since the kidnap there have been daily prayer vigils in many churches including Bundang. The behaviour of the hostage relatives is moving.  “I wish all of this was a lie” says Seong Jeong-bae (57) who has two daughters among the hostages. “How can I go on living if anything bad happens to them?” adds Park Eun-jo, the imprudent pastor who has recognised his error, close to tears. “We have withdrawn all aid operations in Afghanistan”, he declared in a public apology: “I am sorry to have caused such a grave problem.  I sincerely ask for the forgiveness from the families of the hostages”.

The Korean Catholic Church does not send anyone into the Muslim areas and the National Council of Korean Churches, the main protestant organisation, shares this view.  Instead the Institute of Asia culture (IACD), gives priority to religious rights regarding security.  Institute secretary, Choi Han-woo, had said before the kidnapping: “Since 2001 we have organised annual peace festivals in Kabul: hundreds of volunteers have taken part in them and nothing has happened to anyone” underlining that “the security situation in Afghanistan improves every year”.

The head of the kidnappers is demanding the Kabul government immediately release 23 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the hostages.  March last it conceded the release of 5 Taliban prisoners for the freedom of an Italian Journalist, underlining that it was an unprecedented exchange that would not be repeated. 

Ahmadi, guerrilla spokesman said: “If the government (in Kabul) does not accept our conditions then it will be difficult for the Taliban to insure the safety of the hostages, to give them food or medicine.  We will have no other option than to kill them”.

The situation is tragic.  Analysts are united in their condemnation of some missionary group’s over- zealousness.  Professor Sohn Ju-young, Arab language specialist in Hankuk University (Seoul), said: “Christians have no concept of how dangerous missionary activity is in Muslim nations and n particular, Afghanistan. There fundamentalism based on Wahabismo is dominant, which justifies religiously motivated terrorism.  Osama Bin Laden is a product of this”.

In an unprecedented move, South Korean President Roo Moo-yun, made a personal televised appeal begging for the release of the hostages and asking for the Foreign Ministries maximum efforts.  Fortunately the Taliban accepted direct negotiations with Seoul.


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See also
Tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang rise as Cold War fears cast a shadow over Korea
12/02/2016 15:14
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Seoul: direct negotiations with the Taliban to free the 21 Christian hostages


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