Thursday, August 03, 2006

More on Korean Christians in Afghanistan

Tensions over Christian rally in Islamic Afghanistan. In full ...

A South Korean Christian group was Thursday facing the prospect of its "peace festival" in strictly Islamic Afghanistan being called off after some of its followers were turned away at the borders and others were battling to get visas.

About 1,500, including 600 children, were already in the country for the event, due to start at the weekend, but their presence had raised concern in this volatile country where religious issues are sensitive.

The evangelical group insists that it has gathered hundreds of people in war-ravaged Afghanistan purely to promote peace and reconstruction, but the South Korean government is worried about a backlash and has urged them to leave.

The Afghan government says officially that it believes that they are here for peaceful aims and should be allowed to stay unless they start preaching - which would be against the law.

But around 35 South Koreans were turned back from Kabul airport Tuesday and the Afghan embassy in Seoul was even stalling on handing visas to a football team, an organizer said Wednesday.

The government had also ordered some of the group's members to leave villages around Afghanistan where they had been meeting Afghans and offering help, such as handing out insecticides, Kang Sung-Han said.

Kang, from the South Korea-based Christian humanitarian group, the Institute of Asian Culture and Development, blamed "wrong information" about the nature of the festival that he said was mainly a sporting and education event.

The festival was intended to encourage South Koreans to help Afghanistan, which is struggling to rebuild after decades of war because of an insurgency by the Taliban movement toppled from power nearly five years ago.

"We want Korean people to be involved in Afghanistan reconstruction more than ever ... we wanted to make a big point for more Koreans not to be afraid of Afghanistan," he said.

Kang said that his nongovernmental organization had been working in Islamic countries for 25 years and had never pushed religious activities and would not do anything against the law.

"We are not against the policies of Afghanistan. We respect and we love Afghanistan," he said, accusing South Korean authorities of putting too much emphasis on the risks of being in Afghanistan.

But South Korean Christians are noted for aggressive evangelism, notably in communist China and Islamic nations.

In Afghanistan religious matters can cause tempers to flare, with the conversion of an Afghan to Christianity causing weeks of debate around March over whether or not he should be executed in terms of Islamic Sharia law.

The controversy died down when the convert, Abdul Rahman, was spirited away to Italy amid fears for his life.

The Afghan government confirmed that it had given out several hundred tourist visas to the South Koreans but warned the visitors against preaching or political activities.

"They have clearly said that they want to come to Afghanistan for the expansion of the peace culture via visiting schools, education centers, and interaction with Afghans," said foreign ministry advisor Daud Muradian.

He added, they "need to understand that if for whatever reason they do not observe and care for sensitivities, we will face them."

"If they start some political or some other activities or some missionary acts, that will not be allowed, that is contrary to the constitution," said presidential spokesman Karim Rahimi.