Religious peace threatened in South Korea

By Choe Sang-Hun, IHT, October 14, 2008

SEOUL, South Korea -- At Jogye Temple, normally an island of Buddhist serenity, plainclothes officers have staked out the exits, waiting to grab any fugitives who venture out.

<< A Buddhist nun in Seoul protesting with a poster of President Lee Myung Bak. (Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters)

Camped out on the temple grounds are the leaders of fierce anti-government protests who have been charged with instigating violence. They have come to the temple seeking political sanctuary, not spiritual uplift. One top government official has branded them "Satans."

As a gong echoes through the neighborhood of office towers in central Seoul, afternoon worshipers arriving at the temple - home to the largest Buddhist order in South Korea - walk below a canopy of 6,200 lotus-shaped lanterns. The lanterns are arranged by color to spell the English word "OUT" - a highly unusual rebuke to President Lee Myung Bak from the country's once-docile and normally apolitical Buddhists.

"Religious peace in our country is being threatened by those who dream of turning it into a medieval Christian kingdom through a church elder-president," said Park Jeong Kyu, a spokesman for the Jogye Order.

Lee, 66, is an elder at a Presbyterian church in Seoul. Since his election last December, Buddhists have voiced a rising alarm over the country's conservative Protestant churches. These churches support Lee, but they also have irritated many Koreans - not just Buddhists - with their assertive proselytizing and alleged disregard for other faiths.

In August, tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and lay people marched in central Seoul, accusing Lee and his government of discriminating against Buddhists and favoring Protestants.

This protest, the first of its kind here, signaled an awakening of political activism among South Korea's Buddhist clerics. It also raised the prospect of sectarian strife, something the country has not seen in its modern history.

"What we see is unusual, because this country - although frequently torn by wars, ideology-driven violence and factional politics - has always maintained religious harmony," said Song Jae Ryong, a professor of the sociology of religion at Kyung Hee University.

In the spotlight of the dispute is Lee, who once outraged Buddhists by vowing, when he was mayor of Seoul, to "consecrate" the capital to the Christian God.

The South Korean Constitution bans designating any faith as a state religion. Nearly half the country's 47 million people disavow any religious affiliation. The religious - Buddhists (10.7 million), Protestants (8.6 million), Roman Catholics (5.1 million) and Confucianists and other minorities - have long coexisted peacefully, even within the same family.

Lee was not the first Christian that South Korea has elected president. Two of his three predecessors were practicing  Christians.

But discord flared after Lee's inauguration in February.

Buddhists complain that of the 16 members of Lee's cabinet, 13 are Christians while only one is a Buddhist. (The other two have no religious affiliation.)

Buddhist misgivings about Lee deepened in June, when the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs posted on its Web site a map of greater Seoul that omitted Buddhist temples, even famous ones, while marking the locations of even minor Christian churches.

Then in July, police officers trying to serve arrest warrants to the anti-U.S. beef protesters who had taken refuge in the Jogye Tempe stopped and searched the car of Jigwan, the head of the Jogye Order.

Earlier, Lee's public relations secretary, who is also a Protestant pastor, called the protesters "Satans."

In August, a prominent Protestant minister was invited to say the prayer at a lunch Lee hosted for the U.S. president, George W. Bush, at the presidential Blue House.

Buddhists seized on these and similar episodes to accuse Lee and Protestant churches of "using the government as a proselytizing tool."

The government apologized for what it called its own unintentional errors, such as the map, and expressed regret for its critics' "misunderstanding" of other issues. For example, even before Lee, Christians were heavily represented in senior government posts. And Lee revised the government officials' code of conduct to add a warning against religious bias.

After a lengthy meeting on Sept. 26, top abbots of the Jogye Order acknowledged Lee's conciliatory gestures. That helped defuse tensions somewhat, but the abbots affirmed that they would proceed with a major Buddhist rally scheduled for Nov. 1 in Daegu, the home ground of Lee's main conservative rival, Park Geun Hye.

They also demanded that Lee fire his police chief, a Presbyterian, and introduce a law to punish officials who display religious bias in the line of duty. They also urged Lee not to arrest the activists holed up at Jogye Temple.

Buddhism is 1,600 years old in Korea, but it has lost ground, first to Catholicism and then to Protestant denominations. Protestantism arrived here with American missionaries only a century ago but has expanded in the past several decades in parallel with the country's modernization.

Christian missionaries introduced Western medicine and education. And Korean Christians were active in the fight for democracy during the decades of military rule.

By contrast, Buddhism, with its focus on meditation and seclusion in mountain temples, increasingly struck the nation's newer generations as esoteric and tradition-bound. To many Koreans, it was more a cultural heritage than a religion.

Meanwhile, Buddhist monks raised eyebrows several years ago when Jogye Temple took on the appearance of a kung fu movie set, as bands of rival monks - reportedly including hired thugs disguised in monks' robes - kicked and punched at each other in a literal fight over control of the order, which owns vast properties.

"Buddhists failed to play an important social role," said Bae Byoung Tae, secretary general of the Buddhist-affiliated Korea Institute for Religious Freedom. "But Protestants, whose numbers expanded rapidly alongside the economy during the dictatorships, also adopted authoritarian methods in proselytizing.

"They don't respect or recognize other religions."

Buddhists still chafe at the fact that Syngman Rhee, the nation's dictatorial founding president and also a Protestant elder, made Christmas a national holiday in 1948 - 27 years before Buddha's birthday gained the same status.

Like South Korea's conglomerates, its Protestant churches can seem obsessed with size.

Seoul is home to 11 of the world's 12 largest Christian congregations. Yoido Full Gospel Church, whose chief minister recited the prayer at the Lee-Bush lunch, boasts 800,000 members.

Protestant churches stage all-night prayer marathons. Their evangelical zeal made news last year, when 23 Presbyterians were kidnapped in Afghanistan by the Taliban and two of them were murdered.

Christian fundamentalists have stoked resentment by vandalizing statues of Dangun, the nation's mythic founder. Families also have been divided as increasing numbers of Protestants have refused to take part in Confucian ancestor worship, holiday rituals that used to be performed in all families regardless of their religious affiliation.

The Buddhist furor escalated in recent weeks as videos circulated on the Internet showing zealous Protestant preachers, one of whom led his congregation in shouts for the "collapse of Buddhist temples."

In another clip, a leading preacher, Jang Kyong Dong, says: "Buddhist monks are wasting their time. They should convert to Jesus. Is there any Buddhist country in the world that is rich?"

During the administrations of Lee's two liberal predecessors, conservative Protestant groups emerged as a key opposition force. They organized outdoor rallies, denouncing both North Korea's leaders and the leftist government in Seoul as "Satanic." They rallied around Lee in the December election.

Now that Lee is in power, the backlash is being felt.

Yang Se Jin, secretary general of Christian Ethics Movement of Korea, a Protestant civic group, put it this way: "Buddhists' sense of crisis over their declining influence in South Korea, and society's, not just Buddhist, unease with Protestants' aggressive proselytizing, have exploded under Lee's government."

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