The Korea Herald


South Korea to restrict Christian missionaries in Islamic nations

By 신혜인

Published : Feb. 15, 2011 - 19:39

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South Korea is to enact laws to discourage its people from engaging in illegal activities overseas, a move seen by Christian groups here as an attempt to curb missionary work.

The South Korean government has been trying to deal with the growing dangers of Christians working as missionaries in Islamic nations, especially after a young missionary was kidnapped and killed by insurgents in Iraq in 2004.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry announced that new laws will forbid passports for people who have been punished or banished from a foreign state for conducting illegal activities there. Under the revision, a wrongdoer will not be issued with a passport for one-three years depending on the gravity of the offense and the penalty, the ministry said.

The government decided to legislate on these issues ― previously carried out under Foreign Ministry guidelines ― for transparency and to notify more people of the regulations, the ministry explained.

Although the government has not specifically stated the term “missionary work” in the category of illegal activities ― while including words such as murder, drug trafficking and illegal entry in the regulations ― Christian groups claim there is only one real purpose behind the move.

“The government wants to control missionary activities overseas,” an elder at a Presbyterian Church in Seoul said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“I can understand why some sort of a boundary is becoming necessary, but I cannot agree with using broad terms that will discourage overall missionary work,” the elder added, citing the term “impairing national dignity” the government used to describe illegal actions in general.

The Korea World Missions Association sent a statement to the Foreign Ministry last week, expressing regret about the decision to tackle the issue “via legal restriction.”

“Someone who is deported from a country for religious, humanitarian activities and someone who actually broke the law must be separately treated,” the nationwide corporation said in the statement.

None of the regulations have been newly created and the government has no intention to unjustly curb missionary work, a ministry official said on the condition of customary anonymity.

“All of the regulations have been carried out since 1981 under our guidelines,” the official said. “And there has not been anyone who was banned from achieving a passport due to missionary activities.”

It will take less than three months for the laws to take effect once approved by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet, the official added.

The Iraqi militants who killed the young South Korean missionary Kim Sun-il in 2004 claimed they did so because he was engaged in “annoying religious activities” in Iraq, spawning concerns over Christians who aggressively attempt to evangelize Muslims.

Some Christians continue to ignore government warnings and enter nations designated as “unsafe” by the Foreign Ministry for missionary work, leading to cases such as the kidnapping of dozens of Koreans in Afghanistan in 2007 and the imprisonment of two Korean men in Libya last year.

The issue has sparked social disputes in recent years as some side with the government saying taxpayers shouldn’t have to shoulder ransoms and other costs spent to rescue the missionaries.

The South Korean government adopted a policy not to pay ransoms to kidnappers after the 2007 Afghanistan incident, during which two people were executed while 21 others were released after the government paid a large sum of money to the Taliban. The exact amount has not been made public.

By Shin Hae-in (