It was a wide decision by the Buddhists faced with increased economic hardship for ordinary Koreans and an intensifying global financial crisis. If the clash between the government and the Buddhist community had continued, other religious groups would have been sucked into it, and this in turn would have complicated the already troubled state of the nation.
As the conflict between the government and the Buddhist community surfaced, Buddhists lambasted the government’s religious bias while demanding an apology from the president and a promise not to repeat such mistakes; the punishment of the chief of police and other government officials accused of religious bias; and the passage of laws prohibiting religious bias by government officials.
At a Cabinet meeting on Sept. 9, President Lee Myung-bak said he regretted that the comments made by some public officials had hurt the feelings of Buddhists and ordered his officials to maintain religious neutrality. In an address to the nation on the same day, the president took the blame for causing the conflict with Buddhists.
Regarding its demand for the ouster of Police Commissioner Eo Cheong-soo, the Joggye Order said it would make a final decision on the matter after holding a conference on Nov. 11, while vowing to continue its demand to seek the passage of laws banning religious bias. But these issues are resolvable through open dialogue.
The government must put into action the promises it has made, and the Buddhist community must avoid making demands that could appear excessive in the eyes of the public. If that happens, then an amicable resolution can be reached.
In a country where more than half the population follows a particular religion, the latest incident, in which Korea’s largest religious group lodged a protest against a president who belongs to the religion with the second-largest following, brought home just how important religious harmony is to social cohesion.
Koreans live in a society where religious strife is virtually nonexistent, to the extent that Buddhist monks, Catholic priests and Protestant pastors play soccer together. But as we can see in other countries suffering from religious strife, a breakdown in religious harmony can lead to bloodshed, and religious harmony is extremely difficult to recover.
The government must be extra cautious that controversy over religious bias does not erupt again, and the Buddhist community must pool its wisdom to resolve the latest controversy without lingering animosities.