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Buddhists close temples to Korean President allies, GNP reps

By Ser Myo-ja, JoongAng Daily, December 11, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- After funding for a temple stay program was slashed in the national budget passed Wednesday, the Buddhist community has lashed back at the Lee Myung-bak administration, and Grand National Chairman Ahn Sang-soo vowed yesterday to find out who cut the funds and punish them.

<< Korean President Lee Myung Bak at a Buddhist function (file pic)

The Jogye Order, the country’s largest Buddhist sect, issued a statement Thursday banning all Grand National Party lawmakers and Lee Myung-bak administration officials from entering its temples. “The ruling party and the administration rammed through next year’s budget on Wednesday, and the amount earmarked for the temple stay project was cut based on religious bias,” the statement said. “We cannot accept this situation and we ban all public servants and GNP lawmakers from entering temples nationwide.”

The order also said it opposed the four-rivers restoration project - a signature policy of the Lee administration - because the government has failed to listen to public opinion about it.

The annual budget for temple stays, a signature cultural program that allows tourists to experience Buddhist culture firsthand, was 18.5 billion won ($16.2 million) in 2010. But in next year’s budget, the budget was slashed to 12.25 billion won.

According to the GNP, the government had originally allocated 10.95 billion won for next year, and lawmakers raised the amount to 18.5 billion won in the culture committee. But the amount was cut by 6.3 billion won in the budget committee at the request of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, the GNP said. Ruling and opposition lawmakers agreed to the cut.

“We will investigate what happened, because we had issued a special order to keep the budget,” Ahn said. “Based on the outcome, we will punish whoever is responsible.”

Ahn said the community’s rage is acceptable, adding that the party will try to explain the unfortunate incident once its probe is concluded.

“Since the party made the promise, we will do our best to keep the promise,” said GNP spokeswoman Bae Eun-hee. Sources said the GNP is studying whether to reallocate other parts of the cultural budgets or create a supplementary budget to calm the Buddhists.

This isn’t the first time the administration has rubbed the Buddhist community the wrong way. The Buddhist community and the government became estranged shortly after Lee, a Protestant, took office in February 2008 after a series of what the administration called “unfortunate mistakes and misunderstandings.”

Buddhists were angry over a state-run agency’s omission of Buddhist temples from an updated online traffic map. They also complained about perceived Christian favoritism in Lee’s appointments in his cabinet and Blue House staff.

A series of incidents involving the police further fueled Buddhist rage. An annual memorial service on Buddha’s birthday, which was to be held in a sermon hall inside the National Police Agency, was canceled in May 2008 because of a delay in getting permission. In addition, the appearance of the then-national police chief, Eo Cheong-soo, on Christian-themed posters didn’t help matters.

Lee expressed regret in September 2008 for angering the Buddhist community with his administration’s perceived religious bias, but tensions were renewed in March this year when the Venerable Myeongjin, the leader of Bongeun Temple at the time, claimed that the GNP’s Ahn had interfered in the affairs of the country’s most affluent temple because Myeongjin was too critical of the Lee administration.

The soured relationship was restored when Ahn issued an apology in July and promised to maintain the temple stay yearly budget.

After the Jogye Order issued its angry statement Thursday, Presidential Chief of Staff Yim Tae-hee and other senior GNP lawmakers tried to meet the Venerable Jaseung, the head of the order, on Thursday to explain what had happened but were rejected.

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