The recent kidnapping of 23 South Korean Christians in Afghanistan has not only incited fervent efforts to save the lives of the 22 remaining men and women, calls for prayers, and expressions of concern, but it has also incited criticisms from those who question the group's decision to enter one of Afghanistan's most insurgency-hit regions.
"Religious groups should realize once and for all that dangerous missionary and volunteer activities in Islamic countries including Afghanistan not only harm Korea's national objectives, but also put other Koreans under a tremendous amount of duress," the right-leaning Chosun Ilbo newspaper stated in an editorial this past week.
"I cannot believe that they ignored the warning sign at the airport," one person wrote in a chatroom on Naver, Korea's most popular internet portal. The Web user was referring to the widely-circulated photo on the internet of three of the women hostages posing next to a Korean airport noticeboard advising against travel to Afghanistan.
As a number of publications have already noted, the hostage crisis in Afghanistan has caused introspection in churches across South Korea – the world's second largest missionary sending nation (after the United States).
The East Asian nation, which has seen a dramatic rise in Christianity within just a few decades of the twentieth century, sends one missionary for every 4.2 congregations – placing it 11th in the world, according to Christianity Today. (The U.S. does not rank in the top 10.) And of the estimated 17,000 South Korean Christian missionaries that have been sent abroad, many are in volatile regions.
South Korean missionaries are particularly prevalent in 10/40 Window nations that are hostile to Westerners.
After this latest incident, however, some are wondering if that should and/or will change.
"We need to reconsider our missionary works as a result of this kidnapping incident," said Park Seung-cheol of the Korean Council of Churches, according to the Financial Times.
Another large church umbrella group in Korea, the National Council of Churches in Korea, has stated that all "missionary activity in Afghanistan, where abductions and dangers to life continue, must be stopped," as reported by the Japanese online edition of the Korean newspaper JoongAng Daily.
Did the 23 South Korean Christians cross the line when they went over to Afghanistan despite warnings from the South Korean government?
Are there places that missionaries should not go to, even if it's for humanitarian efforts?
In short, no.
As Jesus commanded, believers are to "[g]o … and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).
Christians should not be confined to only going to places that are "safe(r)" or where there are little or no problems. On the contrary, it is in those countries with the greatest needs that missionaries are needed even more.
And anyone who is willing to step out of their zone of comfort and security to provide for the neediest should not be criticized for doing so nor restricted from doing so.
Think about it. If humanitarian groups that are in areas like Afghanistan – such as the Salvation Army or World Vision – were to avoid such places, the workers may be better off, but those countries and the world would most likely not be.
And what about the journalists and photographers who are going into those same regions? Is their presence more justified or acceptable than those who help the needy, tend to those suffering, or provide food for the malnourished.
In this world that we live in, violence and dangers are very much a reality.
An incident such as the one now in Afghanistan, if any thing, should remind believers of the troubles plaguing today's world and the great need for Christians to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
Korea (and any other country, for that matter), therefore, should not stop outreach efforts in such regions, and concerned individuals – especially believers – should not be critical but supportive of those willing to go there.
Notably, however, believers who go to volatile areas should not just go in blindly but should be well aware of the country's situation, laws, customs, and pitfalls. Neither should they go in arrogantly, selfishly, or recklessly.
Doing so, certainly, is a recipe for disaster.
While it's not yet certain whether the 22 remaining hostages in Korea went in under the aforementioned circumstances, regardless of whether or not they did, their current situation should not dissuade South Korea or any other nation from allowing missionaries to go out to all parts of the world.
Hopefully, it will serve as a reminder of how very needed missionaries are to bring hope and healing to a world torn by hate and violence. And a world in desperate need of change is first of all in need of those whom God has called to change it.