The National Council of Churches in Korea has said that all "missionary activity in Afghanistan, where abductions and dangers to life continue, must be stopped," the Japanese online edition of the Korean newspaper JoongAng Daily reports - writes Hisashi Yukimoto for ENI from Tokyo.
The Revival Times, a Japanese Pentecostal weekly paper, has on its Web site called for continuous and "urgent prayers" for 23 South Korean hostages held by members of Afghanistan's Islamist Taliban group.
The Korean government is struggling to secure the release of the hostages, who are Christians, kidnapped by the Taliban. News agencies reported that the Taliban had extended its deadline for the execution of the Korean hostages until 24 July 14:30 GMT. This, said the Taliban, is to allow the South Korean government to establish direct talks with the group.
The 23 hostages include a pastor and youth members of Sammul Church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in Korea in Seongnam, near Seoul, and three staff members of the Institute of Asia Culture and Development, a Seoul-based Christian humanitarian organization. They were seized by armed members of the Taliban on 19 July while travelling on a bus. The group, all volunteers, was in Afghanistan on a short-term mission to provide medical services.
The Taliban had originally set a 22 June execution deadline, and are demanding the release of a number of its prisoners equal to that of the people being held hostage. The kidnappers also insist South Korea must withdraw its 200 troops in Afghanistan.
"The demand is apparently to put pressure on Korea to persuade the Afghan government to release Taliban prisoners," the Web site Korea.net reported.
On 21 July, Korean President Roh Moo-hyun asked Afghan President Hamid Karzai for help to free the hostages. Karzai promised to offer all available cooperation for Korea.
Cho Hee-yong, a spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noted that Korean military units in Afghanistan are "non-combat units carrying out medical and relief support services", and that the government planned to withdraw its two military units from Afghanistan by the end of 2007.
"The organization responsible for the kidnapping should release the Korean citizens promptly and safely," Cho said in a statement. "Under no circumstances should there be any loss of life."
[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]