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Korea: Buddhists Threaten Anti-President Rally

By Kang Hyun-kyung, The Korea Times, Aug 15, 2008

Seoul, South Korea -- Leaders of Buddhist groups threatened Friday to hold a massive rally Aug. 27 in Seoul to protest President Lee Myung-bak's alleged discrimination against them unless he offers an apology.

In addition to the apology, monks demanded a binding code of conduct requiring civil servants to maintain religious neutrality.

They issued the statement shortly after Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Yu In-chon ruled out to reporters discriminatory treatment of people based on religion.

``Cabinet ministers have already taken adequate measures against a recurrence of such incidents,'' Yu said.

Buddhists have complained that temple information is unavailable in GPS navigational systems in cars, urging punishment for government officials who issue business permits to GPS providers.

``I understand that the science minister has warned that removing data on Buddhist temples from GPS for vehicles will invite a negative reaction from monks,'' Yu said.

He said, however, that President Lee plans no apology, saying ``Lee has already pledged necessary measures to prevent similar incidents from recurring.''

Even before the incident, a feud between Lee and Buddhist leaders had been brewing after he appointed fellow churchgoers to key government posts.

Opponents accused Lee of installing several of his church friends, including Lee Kyung-sook, a former chief of the now-defunct presidential transition team.

Former presidential secretary Choo Bu-ghil stepped down after making a contentious speech in a Christian prayer ceremony in which he called anti-U.S. beef candlelight protesters "satanic."

In May, President Lee's staff failed to send cards delivering his congratulatory message to Buddhist monks nationwide on Buddha's Birthday, breaking an annual tradition.

Buddhist leaders say the presidential aides and the appointment of church friends show the Christian President Lee's prejudice against Buddhism. More Buddhist leaders have joined the anti-Lee campaign.

With the situation spiraling out of control, President Lee and his deputies are taking action. He told a Cabinet meeting that no discrimination based on religion should be tolerated.

Prime Minister Han Seung-soo ordered his staff and government officials to guard against unintended results in religious affairs.

Lawmaker Lee Sang-deuk, President Lee's older brother, is touring Buddhist temples across the country to convince Buddhist leaders that the President will not discriminate against Buddhists.

The Buddhist community, however, is not expected to tone down its criticism against the head of state.

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