The young Korean family aboard the AirAsia jetliner that vanished on Sunday belonged to a group of active South Korean travelers: Christian missionaries.
Park Seong-beom, 37 years old, and his wife Lee Kyung-hwa had moved to Indonesia in September with their infant daughter to begin teaching Korean and computer skills in the town of Malang, on the eastern half of Java island.
Mr. Park was a missionary from his home church, Yeosu First Presbyterian Church, based in this fishing town of about 300,000 people at the southern coast of the Korean peninsula. Ms. Lee was a missionary sent by her church in Seoul.
Mr. Park and his wife were just two months into their new postings and still getting the lay of the land, said Kim Jong-heon, the pastor who oversees Yeosu First Presbyterian Church’s missions work, in an interview on Monday.
Ms. Lee, a native of Seoul, had already spent several years living in Indonesia as a missionary, Mr. Kim said, and she influenced the decision for the family to move there. Their daughter, Park Yuna, was born about nine months before the move.
The family was traveling to Singapore from the Indonesian city of Surabaya, where the plane had departed, to renew their visas, according to an official at Yeosu First Presbyterian Church. The church said that Mr. Park’s parents wanted privacy and were declining to speak to the media.
Mr. Park and his wife are part of a larger wave of Korean Christians who have fanned out across the continent and around the world. At the end of 2013, there were nearly 26,000 South Korean missionaries working in 169 countries around the world, according to the Korea World Missions Association, an interdenominational Protestant group based in Seoul.
Nearly 700 of those missionaries are based in Indonesia, according to the organization, making the country one of the biggest missions fields for South Korea’s Protestants, behind the country’s neighbors, China and Japan.
Korean Christians have in recent years been drawn to Indonesia, a country of about 250 million people that is 87% Muslim. While Indonesia recognizes Protestantism and Roman Catholicism and allows Christians to worship freely, it frowns on open evangelism, said Lee Jang-ho, a Presbyterian pastor in Seoul who served as a missionary in Malang between 1988 and 1996.
Malang was a particularly popular destination for Indonesia-bound missionaries from Korea, Mr. Lee said, pointing to a good system of international schools for the missionaries’ children and universities.
SOURCE: JONATHAN CHENG AND MIN-JEONG LEE
The Wall Street Journal