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Temple fire fuels Buddhists' fury

By Park Si-soo, The Korea Times, Dec 18, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- The destruction of a wooden gate in a Buddhist temple by arson, Thursday, has put a negative spin on the already chilled relations between Korean Buddhism and President Lee Myung-bak, a devoted Christian.

The fire, which reduced Cheonwangmun gate in a 1300-year-old Beomeo temple in Busan to ashes, broke out amid escalating tension between the second largest religion of the country and President Lee’s Grand National Party (GNP) following a budget cut for “templestay” programs in the process of the GNP’s railroading of next year’s state budget early this month.

It was the latest in a series of cases deepening Buddhists’ hostility against the ruling party and the government during Lee’s presidency.

Police have opened an investigation into the fire and placed a man spotted on a surveillance camera video on a wanted list since flames began to engulf the wooden gate upon his departure from the temple.

Police believe there was no political motive behind the incident. Yet, Buddhist circles seem to be trying to take advantage of the case to gain leverage in its protest against what they call “Christian-friendly” President Lee and his administration.

A group of monks held a press conference in Seoul Thursday morning, just hours after the fire was extinguished. They called for an extensive probe into the incident and condemned President Lee for his “biased” religious policies.

“The number of incidents meant to hurt the properties and value of Buddhism has surged since the Lee administration took over,” an association for young Buddhists said in a statement. “The incident came as a great surprise because it took place at a time when the entire Buddhist circle was raising voices against the ruling party’s short-sighted passage of bills regarding the templestay budget.”

Currently, all Buddhists leaders refuse to have any official meeting with those from the GNP, under the direction of Ven. Jaseung, chief executive of Jogye, the largest Buddhist order. In a statement issued last Friday, Jaseung denounce the budget reduction and urged all Buddhist leaders “not to meet with any figures from the ruling camp.”

Following the incident, the ruling camp moved first to break the deadlock.

Kim Moo-sung, floor leader of the GNP, hurriedly visited the site of the fire about 400 kilometers south of Seoul on the same day it broke out. Kim, an aide to President Lee, offered commiseration to the angered monks there and promised that his party will fully cooperate to restore the burnt structure in the first high-profile meeting between a ruling party lawmaker and a senior monk since the boycotting.

During a lunch with Ven. Jeongyeo, head of Beomeo temple, Kim apologized for the budget reduction and said his party was suffering from “a sense of guilt.”

“We have set plans to secure additional budget for the programs,” Kim told the head monk. “Please forgive us and, if necessary, berate us.”

Presidential spokesman Hong Sang-pyo also talked with the head monk over the phone and delivered President Lee’s message regarding the restoration plan.

However, Ven. Jeongyeo’s meeting with GNP leaders also drew criticism from the Jogye Order leaders who have declared that they will not meet any of GNP members.

Since Lee’s inauguration in early 2008, Buddhist groups have often clashed with his administration over its religious policies and Lee’s alleged bias as a Christian. Lee is well known as an elder of the Christian Somang church in Seoul. The conflict reached the highest level in August 2008 when tens of thousands of monks and Buddhists took to downtown Seoul to hold a massive rally against Lee’s “biased” religious policies.

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