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Korean President reaches out to Buddhist leaders

By Namkoong Wook, JoongAng Daily, March 19, 2009

Seoul, South Korea -- President Lee Myung-bak, an elder at Somang Presbyterian Church, participated in a large Buddhist conference yesterday afternoon with First Lady Kim Yoon-ok.

<< President Lee Myung-bak and First Lady Kim Yoon-ok pray at a large Buddhist conference themed “Overcoming the economic crisis and uniting the people,” held at the Grand Hilton Hotel in northern Seoul yesterday. [YONHAP]

His attendance seemed to be a reconciliatory gesture aimed at Buddhists after his administration was criticized for discriminating against them last year. It was the first time Lee had attended a Buddhist event since he took office last year.

The biennial meeting was attended by 1,000 key figures of 27 Buddhist sects in Korea. Executive chiefs of the nation’s three major Buddhist sects - Venerable Jigwan of the Jogye Order, Venerable Unsan of the Taego Order, and Venerable Jeongsan of the Cheontae Order - also attended. Government officials including Culture Minister Yu In-chon and Kang Yoon-ku, presidential secretary for social affairs, accompanied Lee.

The theme of yesterday’s meeting was “Overcoming the economic crisis and uniting the people.”

In a speech, President Lee Myung-bak expressed gratitude for the efforts of the Buddhist community to embrace different values in a multi-religious country. He said the Buddhist spirit has helped the country avoid religious conflicts and as a result, contributed to uniting the people.

“I thank the Buddhist community for taking the lead in overcoming the economic crisis and bringing the public together,” Lee said. “The government will also honor Buddha’s teachings and will put forth every ounce of its energies to revive the economy and unite the people.”

Relations between Lee’s administration and the Buddhist community were deeply strained by a series of incidents last year that the Buddhist community has called religious discrimination. Among such irritants was the appointment of mostly Christians to top government positions and the omission of Buddhist temples from an online traffic map produced by a state-run agency. Then-National Police Chief Eo Cheong-soo’s appearance in posters for a Christian police event added to the anger.

The tension reached its peak when police searched Venerable Jigwan’s car looking for organizers of anti-U.S. beef protests who were taking shelter at Jogye Temple in Seoul. The Jogye Order is the largest Buddhist sect in Korea. The incident led to Buddhist leaders and monks holding services to protest the government’s pro-Christian bias.

President Lee Myung-bak made a public apology on KBS TV last September, saying, “I regret the incidents that hurt the feelings of the Buddhist community.”

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