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South Korea: Religion Continues to Haunt the Lee Administration

Chosun Ilbo, Aug 11, 2008

Seoul, South Korea -- The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism has demanded an apology and an answer from the government for leaving out Buddhist temples, including major ones such as Bulguk, Baekyang and Bongeun temples, on a website called the Educational Geographic Information System, operated by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, which shows the locations of schools and surrounding areas.

The site shows even small churches and cathedrals. It is a repeat of a similar incident in June involving a transportation information site run by the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs, which also omitted information about Buddhist temples.

At the end of last month, Buddhists protested against the police search of a car carrying the Ven. Jigwan, executive chief of the Jogye Order. Police stopped and searched Jigwan’s car right in front of the Jogye Temple downtown.

One official with the order said he asked police to respect the Buddhist leader, but police ignored the pleas, saying the monk must be searched and opened the car’s trunk. Police say the search was part of efforts to arrest the inciters of mad cow protests, who are demonstrating at the Jogye temple. There is nothing wrong in principle with that account, but it is questionable whether police would have used the same approach with a Catholic cardinal or a pastor of a prominent Protestant church.

Korea is one of the few countries in the world where Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics and other smaller religious groups coexist in peace. Religious leaders get together often and visit each other’s facilities. We may take such peaceful conditions in the religious community for granted, but there are plenty of countries, including the Middle East, northern Island and Africa, where religious strife is passed on from generation to generation.

Former presidents Syngman Rhee and Kim Young-sam were devout Protestants, but there is no account of any great religious discord during their terms in office. Why is this happening only during President Lee Myung-bak’s administration?

Following protests from the Buddhist community, the GNP leadership is busy trying to contain the backlash. It remains to be seen just how effective such measures will be. But there must be an end to religion and politics mixing if such incidents are not to recur. Once they get involved in politics, religious groups will demand rewards for their help, and this will inevitably lead to protests from other religious groups. Aiming to prevent such an incident, Article 20, Clause 2 of our Constitution stipulates that no state religion will be recognized, while religion and politics must be kept separate.

This administration must convince the public that people will experience no benefits or disadvantages based on their religious preferences. And religious groups must take a mature attitude and avoid overly aggressive attempts to win followers or to make other religious groups feel uneasy.

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