Taliban seize members of South Korean church

Seoul, South Korea - Officials confirmed Friday that a group of South Koreans, apparently volunteers from a Christian church, appeared to have been abducted in Afghanistan, where news reports said the Taliban had claimed responsibility and said they were questioning them before deciding their fate.

A police official in Seoul said the government believed the Christians - 15 women and 3 men - might be members of Saemmul Presbyterian Church in Bundang, a city just south of Seoul. Officials at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul said South Korean nationals did appear to have been abducted in the country.

Oh Soo In, a church official, said that a group of Saemmul Presbyterian members in their 20s and 30s were in Afghanistan on a summer vacation, hoping to do volunteer work in hospitals in the southern city of Kandahar. They arrived July 13 and had been scheduled to return home next Monday.

"The government contacted us about 20 of our church members who are traveling in Afghanistan," Oh said. "All our church leaders are holding an emergency meeting, waiting for the final word from the government on what really happened to our youth members."

The exact number of apparent abductees was unclear. Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, identified as a Taliban spokesman, told The Associated Press that the Taliban had kidnapped 18 South Koreans. "Right now they are safe and sound," he told the news agency.

"We are investigating, who are they, what are they doing in Afghanistan," Ahmadi was quoted as having said. "After our investigation, the Taliban higher authorities will make a decision about their fate."

Gunmen stopped the bus Thursday in Ghazni Province as it was traveling from Kabul to Kandahar, said Ali Shah Ahmadzai, the provincial police chief, according to The Associated Press. The driver, who was released late Thursday, gave a different count, saying there were 18 women and 5 men on the bus, Ahmadzai said.

South Koreans - especially church groups, which have recently raised concern because of their aggressive evangelistic activities in some Muslim countries - have been advised by their government to stay out of Afghanistan. Those now there are urged to leave.

After about 1,200 Christians from South Korea, including hundreds of children, arrived in Afghanistan in 2006, the government ordered them out amid fears for their safety.

With an estimated 12,000 Christian missionaries abroad, South Korea is said to be the world's second largest source of Christian missionaries after the United States.

The nine-year-old Saemmul Church, with a congregation of 3,800, has 50 missionaries around the world, Oh said, not including youth members, like the ones currently in Afghanistan, who travel overseas on short-term aid and evangelical missions.

South Korea has one of Asia's most Christian populations. Since the first American Protestant missionaries arrived in the 1880s, the number of Protestant church members has risen to 8.6 million, making it the second largest religious grouping in the country of 48 million people, following Buddhism, which has 11 million members, according to the National Statistical Office. The country also has 5.1 million Roman Catholics.