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South Korea: Government-religion tension

The Korea Times, Dec 14, 2010

Proactive dialogue necessary over 4-river project

Seoul, South Korea -- Bitter tension between the government and religious bodies is escalating to a fever pitich. The Buddhists have vowed no dialogue until the end of the Lee Myung-bak administration because of the unfair treatment.

Cardinal Nicholas Chung Jin-suk faces a call to resign from the head of the Archdiocese of Seoul for his alleged support for the four-river refurbishment project.

Twenty-five liberal priests Monday criticized the cardinal for supporting the four-river project in defiance of the conclusion made by the supreme decision-making body of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Korea.

They believe Chung’s resignation is unavoidable as he confused laypersons and priests through an incorrect message. They asked the cardinal to solicit forgiveness and retire from the post. They said Chung’s has been over the retirement age for four years anyway.

It is unprecedented for a Catholic leader to face calls for resignation.

In opposition of the refurbishment project, the Buddhist community has also declared a cut-off in communication with the incumbent administration. Subsequently, it has barred lawmakers of the governing Grand National Party from entering temples in an unbecoming show of revenge. Angering the Buddhists against their self-control is the reduction of the state budget for the temple stay program for next year.

The nation’s largest Buddhist sect, the Jogye Order, accused the Lee administration of its allegedly biased view that the program will promote only Buddhism. It said the program is necessary to promote Korean culture and tourism as well.

The Buddhist circle, still full of human emotions under their grey robes, vowed to return all state subsidies to the government in protest of the budget reduction.

The Catholics and Buddhists embarrass the Presbyterian President Lee. This is not the first time that Buddhists have aired open criticism of the Lee administration in the past three years. The Buddhists got fumed when the head of the Jogye Order had his car searched two years ago.

The Buddhist community has issued a paper on its position highlighting 100 cases of alleged unfair treatment and regrettable mistakes that have taken place under the Lee administration.

The current feuding is between the government and the Buddhists. The Catholic community is internally divisive. The common denominator of the trouble is the discord over the four-river project. It is not and should not be a sign of worsening relations among different religions.

Korea is an international model for its inter-faith harmony. Ultimately, Koreans have long regarded religion as a means for the unification of the country and its people. Korea has never experienced a national split due to religious differences. Regions joined hands to safeguard the country in times of crisis. Religious leaders took the initiative to wage an independence struggle against Japanese colonial rule. The Korean Conference on Religion and Peace has been working as a channel for inter-faith dialogue and cooperation.

The current troubles are traceable to a lack of communication between the government and the different religious sects. The government must become more proactive in communicating with Buddhists and Catholics on key policy issues. It should take extra care not to give the impression that the Lee administration is unfair in its policies on religion.

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