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On edge, Korean government reaches out to religious leaders to placate protesters

The Hankyoreh, July 3, 2008

Religious groups get involved in candlelight protests
Seoul, South Korea
-- The South Korean government, which has been getting tougher on candlelight rallies for renegotiation of the U.S. beef agreement, is on high alert as Christian and Buddhist groups have begun to join the demonstrations, following an “emergency mass” led by the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice on June 30. With religious groups joining the candlelight rallies, the protests have grown and are peaceful once again. The government, for its part, seems to be trying to reach out to the organizations.

On July 1, Christian groups, including the National Council of Churches in Korea, said they would hold an “emergency prayer meeting” in front of Seoul’s City Hall on the evening of July 3. Buddhist groups, including the Solidarity for Buddhist Environment and LotusWorld, plan to hold a large-scale Buddhist service on July 4.

“Catholic, Christian and Buddhist groups are trying to overcome the situation. If there is no change in the government’s stance, we will consider issuing a statement signed by the leaders of seven groups representing seven different denominations,” said Yang Deok-chang, a senior official with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea.

The “emergency mass” held by the CPAJ on June 30 was attended by some 30,000 citizens, all holding candles, on the plaza in front of City Hall. Led by the Catholic priests, citizens marched peacefully past Namdaemun, Seoul’s South Gate, and Myeong-dong, instead of heading to the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae, or the Blue House.

The activities of the Buddhist groups in particular have put the government on edge. Buddhist groups have long felt that the government is more partial to Christian groups, perhaps because President Lee Myung-bak is a confirmed Christian and an elder at Somang Presbyterian Church in Seoul.

The CPAJ’s participation is also worthy of note. It was active in the pro-democracy movement of the 70s and 80s and has come to serve as a kind of moral compass. Last fall, it represented Kim Yong-cheol when he brought allegations of corruption against Samsung Group.

As if the government sensed the urgency of the situation, Prime Minister Han Seung-soo said, without any prior notice, that he would meet with Ven. Jigwan, the executive chief of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the country’s biggest Buddhist sect. The meeting was cancelled, however, due to a protest by alliance of Buddhist groups organizing the July 4 Buddhist service, which called on the prime minister to first draw up his plans for renegotiation of the U.S. beef agreement before meeting with the Ven. Jigwan. The prime minister is also believed to be considering meeting with various religious leaders, including leaders of Catholic and Christian groups.

In a rare move, Culture Minister Yu In-chon proposed opening a “direct dialogue” between the government and the People’s Countermeasure Council Against Mad Cow Disease, which has been a leading organizer of the candlelight rallies. In an interview with CBS radio, Yu said, “So far, (the government and the organizers of the candlelight rallies) have only told their side of the story, but it seems there has not been much chance for the two sides to meet and talk with each other. The most urgent thing is dialogue.”

“As the government has no channel for talks with the rally organizers, I’m asking some people to hold talks. To open a channel for discussion, I think the organization leaders who are in detention need to be treated with leniency,” Yu said.

Cheong Wa Dae has so far declined to comment on the situation, but was believed to be monitoring the situation closely. It also appears to be taking extra precautions as religious groups are now involved in the candlelight demonstrations.

However, it’s uncertain whether the government action will placate candlelight protesters and religious groups because it lost trust with a violent crackdown on the rallies, during which it called the candlelight protests “illegal” and “violent.” Civic groups responding to the culture minister’s proposal to hold talks with the People’s Countermeasure Council said that the proposal is “nonsense, because police have already arrested some of the activists from the council.”

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