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Buddhists from 2 Koreas to hold joint ceremony

By KWANG-TAE KIM, AP, Nov 22, 2009

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korean Buddhist monks headed to North Korea on Saturday for a joint ceremony with monks there, showing the countries continue civil exchange despite a bloody naval skirmish earlier this month.

The 13 South Korean monks in the Cheontae Order plan to hold the ceremony at a Buddhist temple in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, said a Cheontae official, who asked not to be named because she was not authorized to speak to media.

The one-day trip comes amid inter-Korean efforts to minimize political damage after a naval clash off their disputed western sea border last week that a senior South Korean military officer said left one North Korean dead and three others wounded.

"This shows that inter-Korean exchange and cooperation proceeds in a normal manner," South Korea's Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said.

The ceremony at the North Korean temple is to mark the 908th anniversary of the death of the Cheontae Order's founder, said a monk identified by his Buddhist name, Jawoon, before he departed for Kaesong.

The Cheontae Order is South Korea's second-largest Buddhist sect and helped North Korea restore the temple in Kaesong in 2005. Monks from the two Koreas have held the annual ceremony there since 2005, except last year when inter-Korean ties soured.

Relations between the two Koreas have worsened since a pro-U.S, conservative government that advocates tougher policies toward the North took office in Seoul last year.

North Korea has recently made a series of conciliatory gestures toward Seoul and Washington after months of provocations that included pulling out of nuclear talks, test-firing a barrage of missiles and conducting its second atomic test. On Thursday while in South Korea, President Barack Obama announced that his special envoy to North Korea would make his first trip to Pyongyang on Dec. 8 to test the waters for resuming nuclear disarmament talks.

Buddhism is the oldest major religion in both Koreas. In South Korea, Buddhists made up 22.8 percent of the 47 million population in 2005, the latest year figures are available, according to the South's National Statistical office.

North Korea severely restricts religious observance, although the communist regime claims it guarantees freedom of religion. The cult of personality created by national founder Kim Il Sung and now enjoyed by his son, current leader Kim Jong Il, serves as a virtual state religion.

North Korean Buddhists number about 10,000, according to the Korea Institute for National Unification, a Seoul-based government think tank.

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