From The Associated Press
Tens of thousands of South Korean Buddhists took to the streets of Seoul on Wednesday to protest what they say is pro-Christian bias in the administration of President Lee Myung-bak.
Discontent among Buddhists has been brewing for months over Lee’s alleged favoritism toward Christianity. Buddhists have criticized Lee, a Presbyterian, for filling most of his Cabinet and top presidential posts with other Christians.
Police estimated that 38,000 people, including 4,000 monks, gathered Wednesday at Seoul’s City Hall. Organizers said they would march to the Jogye temple, South Korea’s main Buddhist temple, several blocks away.
Buddhist ire was raised again in June when the transportation ministry dropped Buddhist temples from electronic maps of the public transit system and by a photo in which the head of the national police agency posed with a famous pastor at a Christian event.
The ministry said the omission of the temples was a mistake by a lower official and they were later restored to the maps.
Adding fuel to the fire was a police inspection of the car of the Venerable Jikwan, head of the Jogye Order, South Korea’s largest Buddhist sect, in July when his car was moving out of the Jogye temple. The temple is harboring some eight civic activists who led weeks of street rallies earlier this year against Lee’s decision to resume imports of U.S. beef.
The protests rocked the president’s administration, which took office in February, and Lee’s approval ratings plummeted.
Monks and other Buddhist officials have called on the government to take steps to end what they say is religious discrimination.
Lee “should fire the head of the national police agency to show his sincerity” toward religious neutrality, said Park Jeong-kyu, a spokesman for one of the Buddhist groups that organized Wednesday’s rally.
Park also called for legislation banning religious discrimination.
Buddhism is the oldest major religion in Korea, though Christianity has grown dramatically, especially during the 20th century. According to government figures, Buddhists made up 22.8 percent of the population in 2005, while Christians accounted for 29.2 percent.
In early July, Prime Minister Han Seung-soo, a Catholic, instructed all ministries not to give the mistaken impression that the government favors a specific religion, according to his office.
Han also visited the Jogye temple and expressed regret over alleged discrimination.