Mission Field Dangerous for Church Workers

Twenty-one South Korean hostages remain in custody in Afghanistan. They belong to the same church near Seoul, South Korea, and they were captured by the Taliban on July 19. The incident highlights the dangers for the tens of thousands of missionaries from the U.S. and other countries, who head to danger zones every year.

Myles Fish thinks about war zones every day. He is the president of International Aid, a Christian relief organization that brings medical supplies and expertise to hot zones like Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Kosovo and remote parts of Indonesia. He says he has noticed a shift in the level of safety that relief workers can expect over the past five years.

"It wasn't very long ago you could picture someone who worked for the Red Cross, and at least there was an assumption that there was some level of safety that was being afforded to that individual from both sides," Fish says.

But the old rules do not work in Afghanistan or Iraq, he says, because insurgents have created new ones.

"Because the insurgency has such a focus on destabilizing areas, it's our fear that disaster relief workers are actually being targeted now as a way to create instability," Fish says.

Evidence of that can be seen in the videos of terrified hostages — like the half-dozen South Korean women who can be seen, their heads covered and eyes lowered, with gunmen standing behind them.

Nevertheless, more and more volunteers are headed to these regions every day.

"The fastest growing trend in international relief and development are the short term teams comprised of a lot of times, volunteer labor," says Kevin Turner, who runs the Christian aid group, Strategic World Impact.

It used to be that churches would collect money and send it to professional relief organizations. Now, evangelical mega-churches — those with more than 2000 people — want more hands-on involvement.

"What's happening is, these large churches have a huge influence, and what they're wanting to do is they want to do it directly. They want their money to go specifically to their projects, and they want to send their people for the experience," Turner said.

That appears to be the case with the group that traveled from South Korea to Afghanistan. They all belonged to a fast growing mega-church near Seoul. The purpose of the 10-day trip was to visit a small hospital run by South Koreans in Kandahar, and many of the women were nurses. The pastor who led the group was killed.

But experts say they failed to take precautions that are standard for professional aid groups in a danger zone. For example, the South Koreans reportedly wore Western clothes. They rode in a commercial tour bus. They did not report their movements to police. They did not have an Afghan guide to protect them. Security expert Joe Fifield, says no professional group would have taken these risks.

"There's absolutely no way they would be allowed out on their own. They would have local staff with them. They would have an in country representative, someone who's maybe been working in the country for six months, and they would have communications equipment and a whole set of what's called SOP — standard operating procedures," Fifield says.

Fifield's company trains secular and religious organizations in how to operate in dangerous areas. He says in Afghanistan, Iraq or Sudan, relief workers should anticipate the worst. They should carry satellite phones, have an exit strategy in case they need to leave quickly, be prepared for being taken hostage — and be prepared for violence.

"If you're being shot at, or shelled, what do you hide behind? How do you move? What do you do if there's someone injured? We do practical field exercises," Fifield says.

Greg Gilmore, who heads the Christian relief organization Shelter Now USA, says risk is an occupational hazard.

Gilmore says when eight of his people were taken hostage in Afghanistan in August 2001, they were doing almost everything by the book. Unfortunately, two young female members, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, were caught showing a film about Jesus to an Afghan family. They were held for more than three months. The two women have since returned to a Muslim country — evidence, Gilmore says, that faith is a powerful motivator.

"Jesus said, 'Go into all the world and preach the gospel,'" he says. Maybe not verbally, but by providing food and shelter to the needy. He says Christians have a model for this kind of sacrifice.

"Jesus gave his life," Gilmore says. "He's the pioneer. He's gone before us. He laid down his life. And he told his followers, greater love has no man than he lays down his life for his friend."

Friends and relatives of the South Korean hostages are praying that will not be required of their loved ones in Afghanistan.

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