Concern as South Korean Christians gather in Kabul

Kabul, Afghanistan - Officials warned around 1,500 South Koreans, most of them evangelical Christians, planning a "peace festival" in strictly Islamic Afghanistan against preaching or political activities.

The warning came amid concern that the South Koreans, who have been arriving ahead of the event due in Kabul and other this weekend, could use their time here to spread their religion in Afghanistan where proselytising is banned.

The Afghan government confirmed it had given tourist visas to several hundred South Koreans who had said they wanted to come to the insurgency-wracked country to spread peace.

"There was no mention of religious preaching," said foreign ministry advisor Daud Muradian.

"They have clearly said that they want to come to Afghanistan for the expansion of the peace culture via visiting schools, education centres and interaction with Afghans."

Muradian added though they "need to understand that if for whatever reason they do not observe and care for sensitivities, we will face them."

"If they start some political or some other activities or some missionary acts, that will not be allowed, that is contrary to the constitution," added presidential spokesman Karim Rahimi.

Religion is a sensitive matter in devout Afghanistan. There were weeks of hot-tempered debate around March about whether an Afghan who converted to Christianity should be put to death in accordance with Islamic Sharia law.

Weeks earlier violent demonstrations flared over European newspapers' publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad, with most of the protestors threatening European troops and groups in the country.

South Korean Christians are noted for aggressive evangelism, notably in communist China and Islamic nations.

Their government has urged them to leave Afghanistan.

"We again request that the organisers should cancel the event and that the travellers should give second thoughts to their trip," Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon said in Seoul Wednesday, referring to "terrorist acts" in Afghanistan, where the extremist Taliban carry out nearly daily attacks.

The government was considering plans for a mass evacuation of the South Koreans if necessary, a foreign ministry official added.

The embassy in Kabul had suggested the roughly 200 South Koreans who live in Afghanistan, most of them in the capital, should take their holidays abroad until the event is over, an embassy official told AFP.

"Most of them have followed our recommendation -- I've been getting reports that the majority have already left," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The United Nations was also concerned. "With the current situation in Afghanistan it is not particularly helpful to have people in Afghanistan who may incite public disorder," spokesman Aleem Siddique said.

The organisers of the festival insist it will not include any religious activities and is merely intended to encourage South Koreans to become more involved in reconstruction.

"We wanted to make a big point for more Koreans not to be afraid of Afghanistan," said Kang Sung Han, Central Asia director for the Institute of Asian Culture and Development, a South Korea-based Christian humanitarian group.

Kang said the institute had a Christian background but was respectful of Islamic culture and did not intend to violate any laws.

However, "false information" about the event, which was meant to focus on sports, culture and education, had caused hitches, he said.

A South Korean football team was having trouble getting visas and about 35 people who had arrived from New Delhi Tuesday were turned back at the Kabul airport.

Others already in the capital found that hotels would not honour their reservations, he said.

About 1,500 South Koreans were in the country, including 225 with Korean passports and 600 children, Kang said. "They just want to see Afghanistan."