The Chosun Ilbo has a "timeline" article chronicling the current hostage crisis in Afghanistan. Very telling is the fact that the article does not refer to the hostages as missionaries but as "short-term volunteers."* I suspect that the media have not given us a clear view of who these hostages are and in what capacity they were traveling, but many people in the blogosphere have leaped to the conclusion that these were all missionaries out to proselytize. Perhaps they were, but I prefer to suspend judgment until we know a bit more.
This doesn't absolve the hostages of their own heedless conduct (one remark I heartily agree with is: "They thought they were still in Korea," a familiar critique of Korean behavior when abroad), but does oblige us to avoid rashly jumping to conclusions.
If the hostages are indeed committed missionaries who knew the grave risks, they have little place begging for help. Death is always a risk in spreading the gospel, especially in a place like Afghanistan. But that's a big "if," because we still don't know to what degree the hostages actually knew what they were getting into. With so many conflicting reports, it seems best to suspend judgment for now and to focus our hopes on the safe return of these people.
Much blogospheric discussion has turned to questions of the future. Will Korean missionaries still go to Afghanistan if the rest of the hostages are killed? I wouldn't be too quick to answer "no" to this: after all, many early missionaries to Korea ended up being killed, but Korean Christianity is now one of the two largest religions on the peninsula.
For a very long time, discussions about mission work have focused to a greater or lesser degree on Western imperialism. The idea is that Western culture has spread outward to the Third World through the work of Western churches. Christianity is on the wane in "post-Christian" Europe, but it is burgeoning in the Third World, targeting much the same demographic as Islam.
Now we see that one of the most strongly missionary forms of Christianity in the world, Korean Christianity, is making headlines in Central Asia, whether justifiably or not. Islam is itself a strongly missionary religion; I'm watching with some fascination as Islam finds itself face to face with an aggressively proselytizing strain of Christianity that hasn't directly sprung out of the West. Perhaps wave after wave of Korean missionaries will wash over Afghanistan, changing the religious landscape there over the coming decades. This isn't as unrealistic as it sounds: Christianity has always thrived under conditions of persecution; the psychology underlying its theology is tailor-made for the oppressed.
Both Christianity and Islam share the religious theme of struggle, which means they will both cling hard to whatever beachheads they establish. Both religions have a strong sense of in-group versus out-group, and the majority attitude in both religions is exclusivistic. The ancient rivalry between these two traditions is far from over.
*Granted, this term may be a euphemism for mission-related volunteer work. While I am trying to suspend judgment on this, my own suspicions lean toward the idea that these hostages were not merely in Afghanistan for the narrow purpose of giving medical aid to the Afghan population. It's more likely that some members of the group were there with explicitly missionary goals, while others were volunteers with who never had any intention of proselytizing, but who went on the trip because it was sponsored by a church or religious organization. I elaborate a bit on the fine distinctions in a comment at Malcolm Pollack's blog. I also grant that the Taliban would not be concerned with such fine distinctions.