By Kim Sue-young
The government is seeking to ban people from entering countries in the Middle East for missionary work because of safety concerns, officials said Wednesday.
The move comes as an increasing number of South Korean tourists as well as missionaries become targets of terrorism in the region.
But concerns are also rising that the travel ban could violate rights such as freedom of religion.
“Some people do mission work in the Middle East. So, we are trying to stop them from entering that region,” an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told The Korea Times, asking to remain anonymous.
Among the detailed measures is to put restrictions on the usage of passports and on departures from the nation for those who have been expelled for evangelization attempts.
But missionary groups could face an even bigger hurdle as their members could be prohibited from entering Middle Eastern countries even if they have no records of expulsion.
“Some organizations keep sending their members to dangerous areas for missionary work. We’ve received requests from other countries to have them refrain from doing this,” the official said.
The government plans to make a decision on the matter soon after consultations between related government agencies such as the Ministry of Justice and the National Intelligence Service.
About 80 South Korean Christians have been expelled from Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Jordan and Yemen, for evangelization attempts over the past two months, according to the foreign ministry.
Last month, 12 people faced deportation as they did door-to-door missionary work in Zehedan in southeastern Iran. Six of them had already been expelled for the same reason in that area. The Iranian government reportedly complained of their entry.
In addition, 23 people were abducted while doing missionary work in Afghanistan in 2007 and two of them were killed by the Taliban.
The animosity against the missionary work of South Koreans is even moving toward ordinary tourists and volunteers.
A South Korean woman named Um Yeong-seon working with an international organization for medical services was shot dead after being kidnapped with others in Yemen in May.
According to the Korea World Missions Association, approximately 19,000 Koreans were doing missionary work in 168 countries around the world as of January this year.
Religious groups may raise their voices against the government’s plan since the travel ban could violate the basic right to move freely and freedom of religion.
In response, the government is also considering a revision of the law governing passports in a bid to avoid controversy, a ministry official said.