South Korea turns against 'arrogant' Christian hostages

Seoul, South Korea - The kidnap of South Korean church volunteers by the Taliban has caused deep divisions back home, forcing into the open a dark truth: many Koreans resent Christians and the speed with which they have become a dominant force in the upper echelons of society.

The captive missionaries - 18 women and five men - who were seized in Afghanistan two weeks ago hailed from the Saemmul Presbyterian Church, which is based in an affluent dormitory town south of Seoul.

After they were taken hostage, the church's online bulletin board was deluged with negative statements. Many called the missionaries "arrogant" for trying to proselytise in a Muslim country gripped by conflict.

When the group's pastor, Bae Hyung-ku, was killed last week, the hostile messages increased and the church decided to close its site rather than endure what a press release from Bae's family called "more hatred and misunderstanding."

But this did not halt the critics. A news bulletin board at Naver, Korea's leading portal, attracted vicious denunciations. "Yes, let's pray for the hostages' safe return, only to see these missionaries kneel down and apologise to the people for the Protestants' arrogance," wrote a man who described himself as a "humanist teacher."

Whang Sang-min, a psychology professor at the prestigious Yonsei University, said: "There is growing resentment toward Christians. Many Koreans feel oppressed by the power of the church."

Korea was a Buddhist country 120 years ago, with only a few thousand Christians, mostly Catholics, who faced intense persecution. By the 1960s, Korea had about a million Christians, but their numbers exploded in the decades that followed.

Christians now make up 31 per cent of South Korea's population. At night, the Seoul skyline glitters with video billboards and neon lights but all the commercial illumination is rivalled by the thousands of bright red crosses that shine from the churches found on almost every street corner.

Korea now has more than 36,000 churches, and many of them are loud and proud with a firm commitment to missionary work and a passionate zeal for evangelism.

A typical example is Somang church in the Apgugeong district, Seoul's equivalent of Knightsbridge. It attracts over 15,000 worshippers every Sunday, and the weekly church collection plate rakes in more than £30,000, much of which is devoted to funding overseas missions. The choir is packed with professional and semi-professional opera singers, and the conservative presidential candidate Lee Myung-bak is a member of the congregation.

Saemmul, the captive missionaries' church, was formed by a breakaway group from Somang and it has grown so big it recently converted a five-storey shopping centre into a new church - the Yeoido Full Gospel church in central Seoul, which has 750,000 regular attendees, making its congregation the largest in the Christian world.

Korea has 16,000 missionaries working overseas, second only to the US.

The chairmen of all South Korea's top-10 companies are Christians, as are the majority of National Assembly members.

If the Taliban kills another one of its hostages there will be great sadness here, but also more anger against Christians. A posting on Naver earlier this week gives a taste of the degree of resentment some Koreans feel: "The missionaries are getting what they deserve," wrote a woman who described herself as a secular Buddhist. "Maybe now some of them will stop trying to ram Jesus down our throats."

Kang Sung-zu, South Korea's ambassador to Afghanistan, has arranged to meet with Taliban forces within the next few days to begin negotiations for the release of the remaining 21 church workers.

The Taliban have already killed two of its captives, but it announced yesterday that no more will be executed before the direct negotiations with Mr Kang take place.