Death by religion

by Claude Salhani
Washington, DC - Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. That includes the right of individuals to practice, preach and proselytise without fear of persecution or retribution.

Over the centuries, thousands of missionaries have braved persecution, discrimination, wars, revolutions, inclement weather and tropical diseases to bring the word of their God to others, convinced that their actions were justified in the name of a greater good. Yet, in the past the lives imperilled by the missionaries were usually only their own.

Today, however, with changing norms, the actions of a few can severely affect precarious geopolitical situations, and in the process force the hand of governments into regrettable and/or embarrassing situations. This begs the question of just how valuable – or detrimental – to society as a whole proselytising becomes in areas of recognised dangers, such as countries engaged in war. Should this practice not be put into question when those who set out to convert others venture into troubled parts of the planet, and in so doing place not only their own lives in danger, but also the lives of others.

A case in point was the work undertaken by the group of 22 South Korean Protestants who made recent headlines when they were kidnapped – and two of them subsequently killed – by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The group that set out from Seoul undoubtedly had honourable intentions. Mostly teachers and nurses, they undertook their relief mission with the aim of helping the people of Afghanistan, who have suffered much due to decades of conflict. Despite this goal, after having been kidnapped, the missionaries were widely criticised in both South Korea and the rest of the world for going to Afghanistan for the purpose of proselytising.

However, the question needs to be asked: did their mission, humanitarian in origin as it might have been, not carry more risk than was worth the effort? By venturing into a country at war, where even the soldiers of the multinational force have become targets, a country where kidnappings – especially of foreigners – has become common practice, the group endangered not only themselves, but in the process put the lives of those who went out seeking their safe release in equal peril.

Additionally, their actions required their own government to make painful concessions to groups operating outside of the law, and who are engaged in a war of terror with most of the civilised world. By negotiating with groups recognised to engage in terrorism, the missionaries have – albeit unwillingly – upset international treaties and established dangerous precedents.

The outcome of the South Korean hostage drama, although it had a relatively happy ending, except for the unfortunate two who were killed, is certain to encourage further hostage taking. Why not? After all, it paid dividend. And quite a decent amount, particularly for the frugal Taliban, who we know are not about to squander their hard-earned dollars – hard-earned by the hostages, that is. Pointing an automatic machine-gun at a group of unarmed and terrorised foreigners is by no means backbreaking labour. Given the lucrative return on their investment, it would only make sense for the Taliban to repeat their actions.

For the moment, no one but a handful of South Korean government officials and the kidnappers know exactly what concessions the South Korean government had to make in order to secure the safe release of the remaining hostages. What seems certain is that the Taliban collected a ransom of several millions of dollars. While the Korean government chose to remain silent on the issue, the Taliban did not hesitate to boast over their accomplishment. With the ransom money, said a Taliban spokesman, they would be able to purchase more explosives and carry out new attacks.

As is typically the case in such circumstances it is only a matter of time before the full details of the negotiations leak out, and the truth – as well as the damage caused – becomes known. In the interim, the government in Seoul will attempt to stop other missionaries from travelling to Afghanistan, therefore reigning in freedom of religion.

The moral of this story is that when practised in hostile lands in unstable political climates, even the well-intentioned work of a few, can – and often does – lead to even more complex situations.

This particular episode had, for the most part, a happy ending. Except this is by no means the end of the story: that ransom money, as the Taliban admitted, will be put “to good use”, meaning that more innocent lives will be jeopardised and more innocent people killed, once again in the name of one’s god.


* Claude Salhani is a political analyst and editor of The Middle East Times. This article is part of a series on apostasy and proselytism distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 18 September 2007,
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Message from the Prophet is clear: coexist
Proselytism and the world's religions
Report this from Sudan
Keeping the faith through interfaith dialogue
The right to change one's religion
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Other articles in this series

Message from the Prophet is clear: coexist by Hisham al-Zoubeir
Proselytism and the world's religions by Halima Krausen
Report this from Sudan by Ellen Davis
Keeping the faith through interfaith dialogue by Rev. David Gray
The right to change one's religion by Shaykh Abdallah Adhami