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Korean Buddhists angry again over temple entrance fees

By Park Si-soo, The Korea Times, March 5, 2009

Dongducheon, South Korea -- A provincial court’s ruling banning temples from collecting fees from mountain hikers has drawn strong protest from Buddhists.

The Jogye Order, the largest Buddhist sect in Korea, is even considering shutting down gateways to mountains owned by Buddhist temples.

The reaction came out after the Uijeongbu District Court ruled Tuesday that Jajaeam, a small temple on a mountain in Dongducheon, northeastern Gyeonggi Province, should return the entrance fee of 1,000 won ($0.65) each it had imposed on 22 climbers, who jointly filed a suit last August.

``The climbing routes on the mountain are varied meaning not every visitor to the mountain has to pass through the temple. Therefore, levying the fee on all visitors is legally groundless,’’ presiding Judge Yoon Tae-sik said.

The temple appealed the case.

``The temple owns nearly 95 percent of the land surrounding the mountain. The ruling will drain away revenue needed to maintain the temple and other facilities,’’ Park Hee-seung, an executive of the Jogye Order, said. ``In the worst case, we could shut down the gateway to the mountain.’’

The debate has been ongoing for several years. Temples collected the entrance fee in accordance with the law on heritage management, which enables cultural heritage owners to levy fees on visitors in exchange for opening their site to the public.

With many historically valuable temples located deep inside mountain ranges around the country, many of them have been designated as national heritages. According to the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, 76 heritage-designated temples have imposed the fees, which have triggered disputes from mountaineers.

``I visited Mt. Seorak in Gangwon Province last November to enjoy its full-fledged autumn foliage but was forced to pay the fee,’’ said Lim Hyun-chul, an enthusiastic climber in Seoul. ``It’s kind of a toll we have to pay to pass through a private-owned road.’’

Lee So-young, an officer worker in Seoul encountered a similar irritation last year on Mt. Jiri in South Gyeongsang Province, a national park. ``I refused to pay the fee because I was there for climbing, not for visiting the temple. But I had no choice but to pay the fee,’’ Lee said. `` As thousands of people visit there every day, the fees collected must be significant."

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