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The Korea Herald, Dec 14, 2010
Seoul, South Korea -- The rift between the Buddhist community on one side and the South Korean administration and ruling party on the other is being deepened as complaints over the Templestay subsidy were added to the many recent issues.
Buddhists have cast a wary eye on President Lee Myung-bak, an elder in a mega church in Seoul, since his days as Seoul mayor. Early criticisms involved his public prayer of “dedicating Seoul City to the Lord.” At the beginning of his presidency, his choice of some members of the Somang Presbyterian Church for jobs at the Blue House and the Cabinet drew fire. During the leftist-led protests against U.S. beef imports, an unhappy spat arose between Buddhists and the authorities as leading dissidents took shelter at Jogye-sa, the temple at the center of Korean Buddhism, to avoid arrest.
Buddhists claimed official discrimination against them and favors to Christians. They noted examples when the Seoul police chief’s portrait photo appeared on fliers for a Christian revival meeting and when a new metropolitan area public transportation map was published without any Buddhist temples marked on it. A police check on the Jogye Order’s administration chief at the gate of Jogye-sa increased Buddhist displeasure.
Bongeun-sa in Seoul’s Gangnam area became a center of Buddhist dissent against the Lee Myung-bak government. Reputed to be taking the largest amount of contributions from believers, Bongeun-sa was rumored to be sponsoring leftist dissident’s anti-government activities. Its chief priest Myeongjin accused the leadership of the ruling Grand National Party of attempting to oust him by pressuring the Jogye Order to put the temple under its direct management.
The Bongeun-sa issue was hardly settled with the replacement of Myeongjin with his former deputy when the Templestay row popped up. The ruling party made a commitment to provide 18 billion won in support of the program to accommodate foreign tourists at Buddhist temples for immersion in this aspect of Korean culture, but in the course of railroading the 2011 budget bill last week, the amount was slashed by some 6 billion won. Feeling betrayed, the Buddhist community led by the Jogye Order is threatening a nationwide anti-government campaign, focusing on the ongoing Four Rivers Development Project.
Reviewing the shaky relations between the Buddhist society and the ruling camp, we can find little sign that there has been any systematic discriminatory move from official quarters in political, economic or social spheres. Some conservative Christian groups occasionally expressed negative opinions about other religious circles including Buddhists, but they do not represent mainstream Christians, let alone the president and his church.
To blame is a communication gap. It has been pointed out that the president, having fewer Buddhists in the Blue House staff, has failed to establish an effective channel of dialogue with the Jogye Order or other religious groups. However, open, sincere dialogue is not impossible between individuals with different religious faiths.
Korean society is widely known for religious tolerance at the family and social levels. We had a Catholic president who had a Protestant wife and a Christian-Buddhist couple is not rare in this country. Still, we cannot be too confident of the improbability of religious conflict here. Conscious efforts are needed on either side.
The president may be tied up with many things, but he should be ready to take up a new mission of promoting harmony among different religions, as it seems his aides have not been quite successful in this task. The Buddhist community, for its part, is called on to exhibit more generosity and understanding, forsaking the stereotypical apprehension toward an administration under a Christian elder.