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South Korea: Religious misunderstandings must be resolved

Chosun Ilbo, Aug.28, 2008

Seoul, South Korea -- Around 200,000 Buddhist monks and laypeople rallied in downtown Seoul on Wednesday protesting against what they said was religious bias and constitutional infringement by the Lee Myung-bak administration. Police estimated 60,000 Buddhists took part in the rally in front of City Hall.

<< Tens of thousands of South Koreans, including 7,000 monks, gathered at City Hall in Seoul to protest against what they say is a pro-Christian bias in President Lee Myung-bak's government. BBC picture

The protesters issued a resolution saying a series of expressions of religious bias by public servants in the administration and President Lee Myung-bak’s tacit tolerance of such practices have undermined national harmony and the Constitution, which stipulates the prevention of religious discrimination and the separation of government and religion. They called on the president to break down the walls separating religious, social and regional groups and lead them to unity.

A survey by the National Statistical Office in 2005 showed that 24.97 million Koreans or 52.8 percent of the population adhered to a particular religion. There were 10.72 million Buddhists, 8.61 million Protestants and 5.14 million Catholics. There were also Won Buddhists and followers of “Chondogyo” as well as Confucians. It is simply a shame to see members of our largest religious group having to hold such a protest rally in the middle of the capital.

In June and August, a computerized public transport information system operated by the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs and a digital map created by the Ministry of Education and Science omitted information on Buddhist temples. The same company was responsible for making both programs.

In March, it appointed as its vice president a person who had served as a senior advisor to the presidential Transition Committee. Buddhists not surprisingly raised suspicions of favoritism as this company went on to win two more large-scale map projects form the government, even after the Buddhist temple issue had created controversy.

The poster advertising one sermon held by a large Protestant church in June to convert police officers showed Police Commissioner Eo Cheong-soo standing side by side with the pastor of that church. It was placed on all notice boards at police stations across the country. There are more incidents that have angered Buddhists.

Religious tolerance is prized in South Korea. Buddhism is the oldest religion but officials say Christians make up about 29% of the population compared to the Buddhists' 23%.. BBC picture  >>

The government must set up a team to investigate exactly what triggered the anger among Buddhists. If such acts were intentional, then the people involved should be punished, and if they were unintentional, they should be clearly explained and measures taken to prevent them from happening again.

On Monday, President Lee ordered public officials to be careful not to damage “religious harmony.” Ahead of the rally, Buddhists said they hoped the gathering, which aimed at voicing hope of an end to religious division and a beginning of unity, would not end up becoming a gathering to sever ties with the Lee administration. Countries around the world suffering from endless strife and violent clashes between different religious groups are said to be envious of our country, where so many different religions coexist without problems.

To preserve this intangible asset of our society, the government must waste no time to listen to the voices of the Buddhist community, rectifying what needs to be rectified and resolving any misunderstandings. Buddhists, too, should consider what the Korean public is worried about at this moment.

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