Despite the government’s strong recommendation not to visit the dangerous region, over 100 South Korean Protestants have already left for the Middle East to attend religious rallies to be held early next month in Jerusalem, officials said Monday.
According to a Foreign Ministry official, the South Korean citizens departed in five subgroups for Israel via Syria and Jordan to attend the "Jerusalem Jesus March 2004,"’ slated for Aug. 7-10. Around 3,000 Koreans from several nations, mainly from the United States, Japan and China, are expected to attend the religious event, hosted by several Protestant groups in South Korea.
For months, the South Korean government has repeatedly urged the organizations, including the Christian Council of Korea, to cancel or delay the rallies for fear of possible terrorist attacks on its citizens in the Middle Eastern nations. However, the groups said they would push ahead with their plan to march between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, citing that the event was planned in accordance with the invitation of Israeli and Palestinian governments.
Although the groups report that the two governments have promised utmost security, South Korean officials say the safety of participants cannot be guaranteed.
When asked about security problems, Israeli Ambassador to Seoul, Uzi Mano told the Korea Times "You have to ask yourself: 'Is Bali a safe place? Is Madrid safe? Is Mombasa, or Istanbul, or Washington safe places?' This is my answer."
Citing the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan and the upcoming 2004 Olympic Games in Greece, he urged not to yield to terrorists even if money, efforts and energy are needed to gain safety over them.
"Of course we should be very cautious. But terrorists want to kill, maim, and above all, disturb our daily lives. If you can't go anywhere and can't do a thing because of terrorist threats, it would be the biggest prize for them," the Ambassador said.
Israel's diplomatic mission to Seoul said they support the visit of Koreans in their country and reassured that no real danger will be imposed on them.
"We understand that the Korean government will only think in best terms for their citizens. But we assure that our country is safe for foreign travelers and no major concerns should arise," an official at the embassy said.
However, since the venues have seen many terrorist attacks involving Israelis and Palestinians, the Seoul government has been worried about possible terrorist assaults targeting Koreans or accidental clashes with local Muslim radicals.
Officials are particularly concerned since the Iraqi militants who kidnapped and beheaded Kim Sun Il last month recently claimed that they killed him because he and his company were engaged in Christian activities in Iraq.
"We've been receiving a series of credible intelligence reports," Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Su Hyuk said during last week's press briefing. "They warn that any South Korean national may become a terrorist target, particularly in the case of missionary visits."
An official at Seoul's Foreign Ministry said that although the Israeli government has confirmed that they will provide security for participants, they are preparing countermeasures should any incident occur that threatens the safety of its citizens.
[Sources: Korea Times / Korea Herald]