Missionaries from South Korea believe they are the target of new regulations that would revoke passports from those who commit illegal activities abroad.
The South Korean government has stepped up changes to its passport rules following complaints from foreign governments of lawbreakers and amid increased activities to spread the gospel in the Middle East.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has tried to limit missionary activities in dangerous places, especially in Islamic nations after highly publicized kidnappings and killings.
In 2007, the Taliban abducted 23 Korean Christian voluntary workers, and two of them were killed by kidnappers. And in 2004, a young Christian missionary was kidnapped and killed by an Islamic terrorist group in Iraq.
Under the ministry's proposed regulations, those responsible for "damaging national prestige" overseas will be subject to passport restrictions. South Koreans living or working abroad found to be breaking the local law will be denied a passport for one to three years depending on the gravity of the offense, ministry officials said.
Christian groups see the move as an attempt to curb missionary activities in the Middle East, where Islamic law is enforced and preaching the gospel can be considered a crime.
In a statement to the Foreign Affairs office, the Korea World Missions Association, a major Protestant missionary group in Korea, said that those who broke the law in foreign countries and those who are deported for religious or humanitarian work should be treated separately.
"Nongovernment organizations or religious groups that are doing humanitarian work overseas on the basis of universal humanitarian values can be sometimes deported from the countries they were based in or be punished depending on the local authorities' stance," the Korea World Missions Association stated.
"[Under this regulation] they are not differentiated from general criminals."
South Korea is the world's second largest exporter of missionaries, after the United States, sending over 1,000 missionaries annually.
A ministry official said Tuesday that the ordinance is not intended to restrict religious groups from sending missionaries overseas, but to address safety concerns of the Korean missionaries.
The country enacted the passport law regarding those who damage national prestige in 1981 but has never enforced the law. No one has ever been denied a passport due to missionary activities, said the official.
The draft regulation will go to the ministry's reform committee for review. It would then be reviewed by the Prime Minister's Office before the cabinet votes on the law.