The Taliban said Tuesday that talks on the fate of the 23 South Korean captives are at a critical point after the latest deadline passed quietly without a conclusion to the crisis.
“The negotiations continue. Right now they are in a very sensitive phase,” purported Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told Agence France-Presse by telephone from an undisclosed location as the Tuesday deadline expired.
During negotiations, the Islamic militants handed the Afghan government a list of eight rebel prisoners whom they want released in exchange for the same number of Korean Christians, according to AFP.
“We’ll talk later about the results rather than about the deadline which passed,” Ahmadi said.
Tuesday’s 10:30 a.m. EDT deadline was the second 24-hour extension given by the Taliban since the 23 South Korean Christians, which include 18 women, were kidnapped last Thursday by the Islamic militant group. The church group was on a major highway in Afghanistan heading towards the southern city of Kandahar when their bus was taken over by dozens of gunmen in the province of Ghazni – one of the regions in Afghanistan most affected by insurgency.
The event was the largest abduction of a group of foreigners in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
Despite some reports claiming that the group of Korean churchgoers – mostly in their 20s and 30s – was on an evangelistic mission to Afghanistan, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said Saturday the Koreans were providing free medical or educational services with no missionary intentions.
It is illegal to share the Gospel in Afghanistan, according to the Taliban.
"Afghanistan is an Islamic republic where conversion from Islam or attempting to convert Muslims is regarded as a serious crime in several areas,” said Ahmadi to the Arab satellite TV channel Al Jazeera on Saturday.
Lee Hee-soo, a professor at Hanyang University, noted, "The Taliban regard missionary work itself as a crime that threatens the foundation of their country and society," according to The Chosen Ilbo, a leading Korean newspaper.
Meanwhile, the head pastor of the Saemmul Community Church – the hostages’ home church – emphasized on Monday that the church group was purely on a community service trip rather than evangelistic mission.
“There are some who misunderstand us but we didn’t attempt any aggressive missionary activities,” said the Rev. Park Eun-jo, according to the Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh.
“We are taking steps to stop volunteer activities which are not welcome in Afghanistan and to withdraw remaining volunteers from the region,” he added.
Park has an extensive history that supports his claim that his church group was only there for humanitarian reasons.
In addition to pastoring Saemmul Community Church, Park is also the head of NewsNJoy, a progressive Korean Christian newspaper which has criticized aggressive missionary activities. Instead, the newspaper has urged Christians to understand and respect different religions and cultures, according to The Hankyoreh, another Korean newspaper.
Moreover, Park also leads the Korean Foundation for World Aid, which organized the trip of the kidnapped Korean church group. The civil organization, which seeks to help Koreans worldwide improve each other’s lives through peaceful cooperation, has 14 branches in 13 countries including Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Cambodia.
Saemmul Church supports the foundation and dispatched churchgoers to those countries to engage in community service work for one to two weeks during vacations or holidays.
“We love Afghanistan and respect Muslim culture. We want to continue our community service work in medical facilities and schools in a way that is desirable to the people of Afghanistan,” said Park.
Korean Muslims have joined Korean Christians to call for the release of the hostages.
“Muslims in South Korea send an earnest appeal to our fellow Muslims in Afghanistan to help the doctors and nurses who were doing humanitarian and medical relief work in the nation return to their beloved families safely, freely and as soon as possible,” said Sohn Ju-yeong, who heads the Korea Muslim Federation, according to The Hankyoreh.
There are about 140,000 Muslims – including almost 35,000 South Koreans and 80,000 migrants workers, in South Korea, according to Lee Ju-hwa, an official of the Korea Muslim Federation. Korea has nine mosques and about 50 small-scale Islamic worship places.
Religious leaders of the Korea Conference on Religion & Peace (KCRP), the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) and the Korea Muslim Federation held a joint news conference Monday to urge the Taliban to release the hostages.
“The abductees are civilians who have taken part in volunteer work and they don’t have any political antipathy against the people or government of Afghanistan,” they said.
South Korea has banned its citizens from traveling to Afghanistan after the kidnapping. Seoul has asked Kabul to not grant visas to South Koreans and to block their entry into the country, AP reported.