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Korean President Embarrassed Over Angry Buddhists

By Kim Rahn, The Korea Times, July 30, 2008

Seoul, South Korea -- Conflict between Buddhists and the Lee Myung-bak government is escalating with Buddhists openly denouncing what they call a series of discriminative measures against the religion.

They claim they receive such "disrespectful'' treatment because the President is a Christian. The latest incident came Tuesday when police searched a Buddhist leaders' car.

Ven. Jigwan, executive chief of the Korean Buddhist Jogye Order, was on his way to a meeting when police officers stopped the car at the gate of Jogye Temple in central Seoul around 4 p.m. The temple has been under police surveillance since July 6, as six anti-U.S. beef candlelight rally organizers sought refuge there in order to avoid arrest.

``As Ven. Jigwan lowered the car window and showed his face to the officers to identify himself, an officer said `We need a more thorough inspection,' and searched the car, opening the trunk,'' Ven. Seungwon, the spokesman of the order said.

Some 70 staff members of the order visited Jongno Police Station in the evening to protest, and the station chief apologized. Soul Metropolitan Police Agency Commissioner Kim Suk-ki also tried to visit Ven. Jigwan to apologize, but he refused to meet the chief.

``According to the law, police can search criminals caught red-handed or those likely to commit crimes. This incident shows police regarded the executive chief, who represents 20 million Korean Buddhists, as a criminal or would-be-criminal,'' the spokesman said.

They demanded those in charge of the incident be punished, National Police Agency Commissioner General Eo Cheong-soo resign, and police officers around the temple be withdrawn.

It is not the first time that the Buddhist circle has protested against the Lee government for ``inhospitable'' treatment.

In June, it was found that a transportation information service provided by the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs did not include locations of temples across the nation. Following protests from Buddhists, Minister Chung Jong-hwan apologized.

Days later, it was also found that information maps for the Cheonggye Stream, which is Lee's most symbolic achievement during his Seoul mayorship, omitted temples.

Almost at the same period, police chief Eo appeared on a poster promoting a Christian event for police, aggravating the Buddhist backlash against the government's ``pro-Christian'' attitude.

The Buddhist circle claimed the Lee government discriminates against Buddhism. Following this, Prime Minister Han Seung-soo visited Ven. Jigwan last week and said the government does not lean toward or discriminate against specific religions.

``The search of Ven. Jigwan shows that the prime minister's pledge was in vain. It also shows how coercively police treat people. We believe this case symbolizes how the Lee government disrespects 1,700 years of Korean Buddhist history,'' the spokesman said.

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