When a Taliban militia ambushed a bus taking the highway from Kabul to Kandahar July 19, it was not the first time the Muslim extremists kidnapped foreigners for ransom. This time, however, they took 23 Korean Christians on a medical missions trip-the largest abduction since the Taliban's 2001 fall in Afghanistan.
Taliban militants threatened to kill the whole group of 18 women and five men, demanding the release of its prisoners and the immediate withdrawal of South Korea's small contingent of 200 troops. They extended the deadline at least three times, but finally killed a pastor who was too sick to walk, riddling him with 10 bullets in the head, chest, and stomach. Back home in Seoul, tearful family and relatives of the young group-mostly in their 20s and 30s-prayed and begged for their loved ones' release.
The July abduction was also not the first time Korean Christians have run into trouble. In 2004, a terrorist group in Iraq beheaded a man planning on becoming a Middle East missionary. The latest abduction is testament to how South Korea's church has blossomed in size and zeal over the last few decades, sending abroad the second-largest number of missionaries after the United States.
The multiple-denomination Korea World Missions Association has an ambitious plan to send 100,000 full-time missionaries abroad by 2030. For now, it estimates Korea has sent out some 16,000 missionaries, with a quarter in Northeast Asia. Almost a third, however, are in largely Muslim lands: in Central and Southwest Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Paul Kim, a staff member of Fuller Theological Seminary's Korean Doctor of Ministry program, explained that Koreans see missions almost as a way to "repay debts" to Western countries that spread the gospel on their peninsula.
"Koreans believe that missions and evangelism are one of the key components of Christianity," Kim said. He added, "It's connected to the idea of eschatology-after the gospel is preached to every nation, Jesus will come back."
As part of the end-times idea, some believe preaching the gospel in hard-to-reach places such as Muslim lands will actually hasten Christ's second coming. A decades-old house-church prophecy in China, called the Back to Jerusalem movement, has fed that belief.
The movement's main premise is that the gospel began in Jerusalem when Jesus gave the Great Commission, spread westward, and should circle back to its origin, leaving traditionally hard-to-reach nations ripe for missions.
"There's a real fever to try to evangelize the nations between Korea and Jerusalem," said Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea, a Seoul group that aids North Koreans.
Whatever the motivation for the kidnapped Koreans who went to Afghanistan, Korean Christians have spread the gospel and planted churches everywhere from Nigeria to the Philippines. Their persistence-sometimes into war zones-often mystifies their government and countrymen.
After the latest abduction, Korea banned its citizens from traveling to Afghanistan, adding the treacherous nation to its no-go list of Somalia and Iraq. Koreans who defy the ban could face a year in jail or a roughly $3,600 fine.
For Kim, the group's kidnapping is perplexing in another way. As in the United States, short-term missions trips are popular for college students and other young adults during the summer. But he says they are not always done right.
"When I heard the news, I was sad and kind of angry about why non-professional missionaries went to such a dangerous place," Kim said. At 34, Kim has done his own short stints in India and Japan. "The main thing for short-term missionaries is to help long-term missionaries. If you miss the point, then it could be really dangerous."