The Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) has issued an urgent prayer appeal to the global Christian community for the remaining 21 Korean hostages held by Taliban militants in Afghanistan after the deaths of two male hostages.
"The threat of further executions of the hostages is driving not only the affected families but the whole Korean society into the most painful situation," stated a letter by PROK general secretary Yoon Kil-soo.
"Therefore, we urgently call on the entire ecumenical community around the world to pray to God that the killings of innocent people may stop and that these hostages may safely return to their families," urged Yoon.
The remaining 21 hostages, mainly women, are heading into their 16th day of captivity after Taliban gunmen hijacked their bus in the insurgency-prone Ghazni province on July 19. The group is part of the Presbyterian Saemmul Community Church in Bundang, just south of the South Korean capital Seoul, and was in the country to provide free medical services to poor Afghan citizens.
Since the abduction – the largest abduction of foreigners in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 – two hostages have been killed. The first victim and leader of the team was 42-year-old Bae Hyung-kyu – a youth pastor and one of the founders of Saemmul Church. The body of the second victim, 29-year-old Shim Sung-min, was found Tuesday in a field of clover in a village near where the group was abducted.
The 21 remaining hostages, meanwhile, have separated into five to six groups and are frequently moved around, making it difficult for potential rescuers to locate them. The majority of hostages are also reportedly ill, and insurgents have warned that two women among the 21 South Korean captives were gravely ill and in danger of dying, according to Agence France-Presse.
"Their condition is very bad," purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said late Tuesday. "We don't have enough medicines – maybe they will die."
On Saturday, Reuters released a tape of the voice of a Korean hostage presumed to be that of 39-year-old Yoo Jung-hwa, who said she and the other captives were "tired and being moved from one location to another."
"We are kept in separate groups and are not aware of each other. We ask the Taliban and the government to release us," she told a Reuters reporter on the mobile phone of a Taliban militant. "Sometimes they threaten us; they say they're going to kill us one by one. … Every day we move somewhere but we don't know where. Now we're only four, we don't know if others have survived or not. Please save us. Please tell the Korean government and the U.S. government about us."
In the Korean church body's letter, Yoon said they urge the global community to work for "true peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan."
"Particularly, we sincerely request the governments of both Afghanistan and the U.S. to lead the negotiations with the Taliban for the sake of the safe return of the hostages," the letter stated.
A delegation of eight South Korean lawmakers departed for Washington on Thursday to meet with U.S. officials to plead for help for the release of the hostages.
The main demand of the Taliban insurgents is the release of their imprisoned comrades in exchange for the Korean hostages, a demand that South Korea has admitted it is virtually powerless to grant.
However, the United States has heavy influence on the Afghan government and could persuade the Afghan president to release the rebels. President Hamid Karzai has already stated that releasing rebels is not an option after he was widely criticized by the United States and Western nations in March for releasing five Talibans in exchange for an Italian reporter. Karzai had vowed that the event was a one-time deal.
The Korean delegation to Washington plans to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. They also plan to meet U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, South Korea's former foreign minister.
``We plead with the U.S. government for help: the kidnapped went there to share love, but they are having days like a hell," said the 27 family members of the Korean hostages on Wednesday as they gathered outside the U.S. embassy in Seoul, according to The Korea Times.
"We believe the Bush administration will act for humanitarianism,'' they said as they submitted a letter of appeal for U.S. intervention in the hostage case.
Also on Thursday, Waheedullah Mujadidi, the head of a delegation negotiating with the Taliban, said that South Korea will hold face-to-face talks for the first time with the Taliban to secure the release of the hostages, according to The Associated Press.
Though Taliban captors have agreed to meet with South Korea's ambassador, the location and date have not yet been set.
"The entire ecumenical community weeps at the senseless loss of life taking place in Afghanistan," said the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, in response to the letter on Wednesday. "We invite our member churches to pray with our brothers and sister in Korea for a peaceful end to this crisis and that the hostages will be freed."
PROK sent the letter dated July 31 to its ecumenical partners including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the World Council of Churches.