The two young women hugged each other tightly inside the Saemmul church Thursday, their sobs echoing through the cavernous wooden hall where Bae Hyung-kyu, a Christian pastor who was killed by his Taliban captors on Wednesday, once preached.
Around them, a handful of other women prayed silently in the pews, some rocking back and forth.
People in Bundang, the commuter town south of Seoul where the 23 Koreans taken hostage in Afghanistan attend the Saemmul Presbyterian church, were on Thursday in disbelief that the Taliban carried out their threat to start killing the hostages.
So mingling with the grief was a sense of urgency to secure the release of the remaining 22 members of this church.
“I feel very disappointed that they went to Afghanistan despite the government’s warnings, but I feel very sorry for them,” said Lee Sang-yong, who manages a convenience store opposite the church. “The government should now do everything it can to save them, even if it means agreeing to the Taliban’s demands.”
The Korean government on Thursday condemned the killing of Bae, the leader of the group, who was found on the side of a highway with 10 bullet holes in the head, chest and stomach. He died on his 42nd birthday and leaves a wife and nine-year-old daughter.
“The killing of an innocent citizen cannot be justified under any circumstance or for any reason, and any such inhumane act cannot be tolerated,” said Baek Jong-chun, the Korean president’s chief security adviser, in a live TV broadcast.
Bae had been a pastor for about six years and was one of the founding members of the church, a congregation of 5,000 people, the vast majority of them under 40. He was due to go to Uganda a week after returning to Korea.
“Our pastor who was killed was a very good Christian and a very peaceful person,” said Park Eun-jo, the senior pastor at Saemmul Church.
The 23 were taken hostage when the Taliban intercepted their bus on the road between Kabul and Kandahar last Friday. Church leaders said the Koreans were in Afghanistan as volunteers and not to proselytise, which is prohibited in the Muslim country.
“They were there to help doctors in the hospitals and teachers in schools – they can’t evangelise because they don’t speak Dari [the Afghan language],” Pastor Park told the FT. “Afghanistan is one of the most miserable countries in the world now and we wanted to help them by building hospitals and schools and bridges.”
The hostage crisis has dominated the Korean media, with television networks broadcasting footage of the distressed relatives, and hundreds of Koreans joining nightly candlelight vigils.
But the incident has caused many to question Korean missionaries’ zeal for going to the world’s most dangerous places, especially since the Saemmul members ignored government travel warnings. A photo showing three of the women hostages posing next to a Korean airport noticeboard advising against travel to Afghanistan has been widely circulated on the internet.
“I cannot believe that they ignored the warning sign at the airport,” one Korean, using the ID ehdud4028, wrote in a chatroom on Naver, the most popular internet portal. “[If the government pays money to the Taliban], it is coming from ordinary people’s taxes.”
More than 33,000 people had yesterday signed an online petition asking the government to try to recoup the costs of the rescue if the remaining hostages are returned safely to Korea.
This incident has meanwhile caused some introspection at Korean churches. Korea, traditionally Buddhist, aggressively adopted Christianity during the first half of the 20th century, and about a third of South Korea’s 48m people now call themselves Christians.
With more than 16,000 people preaching abroad, Korea is the world’s second-largest exporter of missionaries.
“We need to reconsider our missionary works as a result of this kidnapping incident, although this trip was for voluntary rather than missionary work,” said Park Seung-cheol, of the Korean Council of Churches.
While agreeing the Saemmul members should have been more careful, he said missionaries could not avoid hotspots: “If we work only in safe places, what about the people in poor and dangerous regions?”