Korean Missionaries Planting Gospel in Middle East

Only a couple of decades after it started deploying missionaries, South Korea has quickly become a nation known for aggressively going to the hardest-to-evangelize corners of the world, from the Middle East to Africa, and from Central to East Asia. In Baghdad, where coordinated attacks on Iraqi churches have prompted much of the Christian population to flee, South Koreans are planning to open a seminary.

"We dreamed this dream … to start a seminary in Baghdad," Iraqi pastor, Estawri Haritounian told the New York Times.

Haritounian, 40, has been working with South Korean missionary John Jung to open a seminary at the National Protestant Evangelical Church in Baghdad.

"Saddam Hussein's regime allowed Christians to gather in private houses, so it was difficult, though possible, for us to evangelize," said Jung, who has been traveling in and out of Iraq for several years. "But now it has become even more difficult for Christians in Iraq. Christians are afraid of Muslims for the first time. We are frustrated we can't be in Iraq at this important time. But as soon as the security allows, we will go back to Baghdad."

Jung told the Times that they hoped to start classes as soon as the security improved in Baghdad. "We'll start with only 15 students, but we hope to grow in the future," he said.

Many in Amman said South Koreans had an advantage over others, especially now that the war in Iraq has aggravated anti-American feelings in the Middle East.

"People expect missionaries to be from America or Europe, so Koreans can do their work quietly," Haritounian said. "Because of the bad image of Americans now, it will be more difficult for American missionaries to work here."

Dennis Merdian, 50, an American missionary, told the Times that in one difficult project he and a South Korean counterpart agreed immediately that it would be better for the South Korean to take the lead.

"He wasn't carrying the American government with him," Merdian said.

However, because religious visas are difficult to obtain in the Middle East, many missionaries come on student visas or set up computer or other businesses, and evangelize discreetly.

One Korean who has worked in Amman for several years spoke of evangelizing in a "low voice and with wisdom," and told the Times that over intimate meals with three or four Muslims he would let the conversation drift to Jesus. So delicate is his work that he never mentions words like "missionary" or "evangelize." Muslims who have converted to Christianity are never identified as such—a necessary precaution in a society where some families engage in so-called honor killings of relatives who have left Islam.

Many missionaries also focus on bringing Arab Catholics or Chaldeans into the evangelical fold.

"There are so many ways to do our work," said the missionary in his 40's, who works in a local church in Amman and delivers English sermons that are translated into Arabic.

"Just as American missionaries did in Korea by building schools and hospitals, there are many ways here," he told the Times. "One important group is Iraqi refugees. They come here. They are tired physically and spiritually. They are so lonely. We help them. They realize they are being helped by Christians. Then they ask about Jesus."

In 1979, only 93 South Koreans were serving as missionaries, according to the Korea Research Institute for Missions. Today, South Korea has rapidly become the world's second-largest source of Christian missionaries with more than 12,000 abroad. It is second only to the United States with its 46,000 missionaries and ahead of Britain with its 6,000 missionaries.

[Source: The New York Times]