After receiving complaints from Middle Eastern countries about the evangelistic efforts of its citizens, South Korea is considering banning missionary work in the Middle East “because of safety concerns.” Surprising, you think? Perhaps not.
For those following our “This week in persecuted church history” blog, you may have noticed that it was two years ago on August 30th that the last of the 23 South Korean hostages abducted by the Taliban in Afghanistan are released. Kidnapped on July 19, 2007 because of their missionary activities, two were killed and the rest held by the Taliban until the South Korean government reportedly agreed to follow through on their plans to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2007 and to prevent South Koreans from engaging in missionary activity in Afghanistan.
In May, Eom Young-sun (33) working with Dutch-based World Wide Services was shot dead after being kidnapped with eight other Christians in Yemen.
According to the Korea Times, in the past two months, the South Korean foreign ministry has said that about 80 South Korean Christians have been expelled from Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Jordan and Yemen, because of their evangelism efforts. Last month, 12 South Koreans faced deportation for engaging in door-to-door missionary work in Zehedan in south-eastern Iran. Six of them had apparently already been expelled for the same reason from the area. The Iranian government reportedly complained to the South Korean government about the Koreans being allowed to travel to Iran for such purposes.
In 2007, after the South Korean government withdrew missionaries from Afghanistan and prevented others from serving there, we at The Voice of the Martyrs expressed our concerns over the decision. At the time we said:
Make no mistake, this decision to withdraw missionaries from Afghanistan and to prevent others from going there is a violation of religious freedom. It is telling Korean Christians, 'You can obey Christ's commission but not in Afghanistan.' This no government has the right to do, even in the name of protecting their citizens.
I remember being concerned at the time that we would probably not see the end of this.
In light of the incidents mentioned above, I guess we should not be surprised to learn that that the South Korean government is now seeking to expand this ban to include all of the Middle East “because of safety concerns.” According to The Korean Times:
“Some people do mission work in the Middle East. So, we are trying to stop them from entering that region,” an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told The Korea Times, asking to remain anonymous.
Among the detailed measures is to put restrictions on the usage of passports and on departures from the nation for those who have been expelled for evangelization attempts.
But missionary groups could face an even bigger hurdle as their members could be prohibited from entering Middle Eastern countries even if they have no records of expulsion.
“Some organizations keep sending their members to dangerous areas for missionary work. We’ve received requests from other countries to have them refrain from doing this,” the official said.
The government plans to make a decision on the matter soon after consultations between related government agencies such as the Ministry of Justice and the National Intelligence Service.
This is not to say that there is not a case to be made that some of the activities of some of these groups are less than wise. Frankly, I am troubled by the lack of wisdom and cross-cultural sensitivity demonstrated by the antics of short-term “missionaries” from a number of countries, including South Korea, that I have witnessed over the years. Anyone who does door-to-door evangelism in Iran, for example, is only looking for trouble. There was no evidence, however, that the 23 who were kidnapped in 2007 or Eom Young-sun demonstrated such lack of discretion.
But that really doesn’t seem to be the issue here. The South Korean government is responding to pressure from Islamic countries to keep their people from entering their countries for missionary purposes. This, the South Korean government has no right to do, even under the pretext of protecting its citizens.
Echoing our concerns from 2007, The Voice of the Martyrs urges the South Korean government to refrain from interfering, even with the best intentions, in the rights of its citizens to carry out their faith even in dangerous environments.
We also urge Christians in free nations to recognize that there are risks in taking the gospel to many parts of the world and to accept the consequences of their obedience. This is biblical Christianity at work and we should not be surprised by it. God does not lead us only to safe places. (see our blog, Is it safe to follow Jesus?)
We also call upon mission and church leaders to better plan short-term ministry trips and prepare participants in ways and means of doing evangelism in religiously hostile environments that are in line with the biblical admonition to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).