Christians say Taliban beat them to make them convert

Seoul, South Korea - Some of the South Korean Christian aid workers held hostage by Afghanistan's Taliban said they were beaten and threatened with death to try to make them convert to Islam.

They also offered a fresh apology to the South Korean government and people over what was seen here as a reckless trip to a war-torn, devoutly Islamic nation.

"We were beaten with a tree branch or kicked around. Some kidnappers threatened us with death at gunpoint to force us to follow them in chanting their Islamic prayer for conversion," Je Chang-Hee, 38, told a news conference.

"I was beaten many times. They pointed a rifle and bayonet at me and tried to force me to convert," he added, without specifying whether anyone recited such a prayer.

Je, who quit an IT company in June to enter a graduate theology school, served as an English interpreter and engaged in volunteer work at a hospital in Afghanistan.

Yoo Jung-Hwa, a 39-year-old English tutor, also said she feared for her life.

"They aimed a machine gun at us in a dug-out. On the last day of captivity, they told us they would let us go if we converted to Islam. I could not even cry for fear of irritating them."

The 16 female and seven male aid workers were taken hostage on July 19 as they travelled by bus through insurgency-plagued southern Afghanistan.

The guerrillas killed two of the men to press demands for the release of jailed insurgents, a demand rejected by the Kabul government, but freed two women on August 13.

The other 19 finally walked to freedom on August 29 and 30 after a deal between the Seoul government and their captors.

South Korea agreed to ban missionary work by its citizens in Afghanistan and to withdraw its troops from the country as previously scheduled.

The agreement also contained terms that have not been revealed, National Intelligence Service chief Kim Man-Bok was quoted last week as saying without giving details.

The freed hostages are being treated in a hospital south of Seoul for post-traumatic stress.

The captives were divided into six different groups, with each group consisting of two to four people. They were moved around continously on motorbikes or on foot, said Yu Kyeong-Sik, 55.

"We feel sorry for causing great concern to the people and the government and appreciate their efforts for helping us reunite with our families," he said at the news conference attended by all 21 survivors.

The incident has sparked widespread criticism of what many see as overly aggressive missionary projects by South Korean Protestant churches.

Asked whether they were willing to return to Afghanistan or any other Islamic country, Yu said they would follow the outcome of discussions among churches.