South Korean missionary groups said they would pull out of Afghanistan to comply with a deal Seoul struck with Taliban insurgents for the release of 19 Christian volunteers held for almost six weeks.
Relatives of the hostages, who erupted in joyous cheers on hearing the news of the deal, were meanwhile eagerly awaiting their release and return.
“Our work for now will be to make sure the freed hostages return safely and have the time to recover, and to make sure the family members of the two who were sacrificed are comforted,” said pastor Bang Yong-kyun at the Saemmul Church in suburban Seoul.
The 23 volunteers sent to Afghanistan by the Saemmul Church were seized on July 19 from a bus in Ghazni province.
The insurgents killed two male hostages early on in the crisis, but released two women as a gesture of goodwill during a first round of negotiations.
The Taliban said they would release the remaining 19 provided Seoul pulls out its troops and stops Korean missionary work in Afghanistan by the end of this year.
South Korea had already decided before the crisis to withdraw its contingent of about 200 military engineers and medical staff from Afghanistan by the end of 2007.
And since the hostages were taken it has banned its nationals from travelling there.
The Taliban had earlier demanded an exchange of the Koreans for jailed fellow insurgents.
South Korea’s churches said the kidnapping had led evangelical groups to rethink their missionary zeal.
The National Council of Churches in Korea, one of the largest groups representing the country’s Protestants, said in a statement it would abide by the government’s pledge to end missionary work in Afghanistan.
“Through this incident, we will look back on the Korean churches’ overseas volunteer and missionary work, and make this an opportunity to bring about more effective and safer volunteer and missionary work,” it said in a statement.
An official at The Frontiers, a Seoul-based Christian aid group said all its short-term volunteers in Afghanistan have pulled out and two long-term volunteers are about to return.
There are an estimated 17,000 South Korean Christian missionaries abroad, the largest contingent after those from the United States, many of them in volatile regions.
For many increasingly wealthy evangelical churches in the country, dispatching Christian volunteers abroad has turned into a competition among churches, with larger numbers considered a gauge of the strength of their faith.