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Korea: Monks Up in Arms Over Police Assault

By Do Je-hae, The Korea Times, Jan 28, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- The case of a drunken group of policemen beating up a monk is testing the relations between the Lee Myung-bak administration and the Buddhist circles.

<< Jigwan, a chief monk of a temple, lies in a hospital bed for injuries sustained during an assult by policemen at a Seoul hospital, Wednesday. / Courtesy of MBC

The assault took place on the night of Jan. 19 at Yonghwa Temple in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province. Jigwan, the chief monk of the temple, claimed that he went out when he heard a dog bark and was beaten up by the policemen, when he asked them to keep quiet. The Jigwan in question is not the Ven. Jigwan, chief executive of the largest Buddhist Jogye Order.

Still, Buddhist circles are up in arms. Jogye expressed deep regret, while opposition parties are using the occasion to voice their opposition to Lee's troubled four-river restoration project.

In a radio interview Thursday, the injured monk cited Lee's "Christian faith and his tendency toward arbitrary decision making" as the main reasons for the estrangement between the Buddhist circle and the government. The monk is undergoing treatment at the Dongguk University Medical Center in Seoul.

"The Lee administration has demonstrated a failure to accommodate critical or opposite views of its policies," he said. "The four-river project is a reckless move that will jeopardize the health of our people's main source of water."

He added that he will continue to lodge protests to stall the four-river project in cooperation with civic groups.

The incident became public after coverage by some Buddhist newspapers Monday. Authorities of the Jogye Order are conducting an investigation into the incident, with a focus on the motive for the policemen's visit to the temple on the night of the attack.

"We are outraged," the Buddhism Human Rights Committee said in a statement Thursday. "The authorities should conduct a thorough investigation and make a public apology to the Buddhism circle."

Some leaders of the Jogye Order paid a protest visit to the Gyeonggi Provincial Police Agency Wednesday. The assault has triggered criticism from the opposition parties as well.

"We express strong suspicions that the police were there to spy on the Buddhists, activities against the four-river project," Woo Sang-ho, spokesman of the main opposition Democratic Party, said Wednesday.

The Buddhist circle views the incident as another example of the Lee administration's "suppression of Buddhism." Since Lee ? an ardent follower of the Christian faith ? assumed office in 2008, Buddhist leaders have complained of the Lee administration's "disrespect and discriminatory" toward the Buddhist faith.

President Lee is an elder at a local Christian church. His administration has been criticized for a series of incidents that allegedly demonstrated its religious bias, including the nomination of Christians to top government posts and the omission of major Buddhist temples from online government maps.

A survey in 2008 found that almost 40 percent of the respondents felt religious conflicts have intensified since the start of Lee's presidency.

Conflict between Buddhists and the Lee administration escalated after the police searched Ven. Jigwan 's car in late July 2008. He 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 had been under police surveillance since July 6, as six anti-U.S. beef candlelight rally organizers sought refuge there in order to avoid arrest.

Some 70 staff members of the order visited Jongno Police Station in protest of the search, demanding the dismissal of Eo Cheong-soo, chief of the National Police Agency. President Lee ended up expressing regret over the incident during a cabinet meeting shortly after the incident.

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