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Radical Christian Groups Fan Islamophobia to Influence Policies in Korea

By Kang Hyun-kyung

April 04, 2016

Inside the Christian community, a small number of radicals politicize issues to make their voices heard. These people have become radicalized since the 2007 hostage crisis in Afghanistan, which killed two Korean church volunteers and put the lives of 21 others at risk and ultimately tainted the reputation of the nation's Protestant churches.

Park Gwang-seo, president of the Korea Institute for Religious Freedom in Seoul, said that the radical Protestants have created and spread Islamophobia to influence policies.

"The players are back on the stage," he said during a March 30 interview at a cafe in southern Seoul. "They pretend they work hard to serve the vested interests of all Protestants, but they don't represent the Christian mainstream."

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Daegu Metropolitan City and Gangwon Province announced that they would drop their plans to establish Halal food zones in their jurisdictions following a backlash from radical Christians. They had initiated the projects to attract Muslim tourists from Southeast Asian countries and help local companies export their processed food products to the Middle East.

Park, who is also a retired professor of physics at Sogang University in Seoul, described the suspension of Halal food zones as a result of those radicals playing hardball at the expense of the majority's wellbeing. Thus, he said, what they did constituted an act of tyranny by the minority.

Park said it's sad that their tactic worked.

"It's not fair for policymakers to suddenly change the course of action just because of the religious group's protests," he said. "They made a quick decision on their own without even asking for the general public's views on the zones, which are linked to their wellbeing. This is wrong."

Park, 67, called on policymakers to hold an open debate regarding the Halal food initiative and invite both proponents and opponents to present their ideas and then take a survey of residents before making a final decision.

The anti-Halal protests mark the second round of clashes between radical Christian groups and the government. The Christian groups successfully lobbied to boycott a bill calling for legalizing Islamic funding, called Sukuk. The government strove to pass it in 2011 following the global financial crisis to help companies secure financing for their overseas projects. However, the Christian activists characterized the Sharia-compliant funds as a purse string for terrorists and pressured lawmakers to reject the measure by hinting that they would vote against them if they collaborate with the government. Their lobby succeeded in defeating the bill.

Hostage Crisis

Lee Jin-gu, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Religion and Culture in Seoul, claimed that radical Protestant groups have used Muslim-bashing as a tactic to regain their influence. During a seminar on religious freedom in November 2010, he said some Protestant church leaders felt pressured to fan Islamophobia owing to their waning reputation and influence as the nation becomes demographically and religiously more diverse. Lee cited the Afghanistan hostage crisis as one of the key events that weakened Protestant churches' influence in Korea.

In July 2007, 23 Korean church volunteers were taken hostage by the Taliban during a bus tour from Kabul to Kandahar. The volunteers were there for a short-term summer overseas mission to spread the word of God.

The Taliban demanded a prisoner swap calling for trading 23 terrorists held by the Afghan government in return for freeing the 23 Koreans. When the government rejected the demand, the group killed two male hostages and threatened to kill more. The government eventually negotiated with the kidnappers, and the remaining 21 volunteers returned home safely in September that year.

The 42-day hostage drama has since marred the image of Protestant churches. Citizens criticized the churches for sending volunteers to a dangerous overseas destination that put their lives at risk.

According to Lee, some Protestant church leaders felt the pressure and looked for ways to regain influence. He said they have chosen Islamophobia as a means to their end and have been demonizing Muslims.

His presentation caused a stir among Protestant churches.

Park said some Christian churches have sought to expand their influence in society, but their strategy backfired.

He mentioned the overrepresentation of Protestant and Catholic believers in the National Assembly as one of those religions' sources of power. Over 100 lawmakers out of the 299-member National Assembly are Protestants, and some 80 are Catholics. The figures contrast with the country's religious demographic breakdown — Buddhists account for some 22 percent of the entire population, followed by Protestants with 18 percent and Catholics with 10 percent according to a 2005 survey.

Park claimed that the dominance of Protestants and Catholics in the legislature has made it easier for their religious leaders to make their voices heard in policies.

Park has fought against religious discrimination, co-founding the KIRF in 2006 to promote religious freedom. The majority of the institute's founding members are Buddhists, and some are Protestants.

He played a role in banning the use of churches for polling stations in 2007 and in a bill requiring public officials' political neutrality in 2008.

Park, a Buddhist, said his religious affiliation made him vulnerable to criticism by some Protestant leaders, who have called him biased. But Park said such criticisms are unfounded.

His role as a watchdog also sometimes exposes him to criticisms from within.

"Buddhist leaders have also told me that they feel uncomfortable with me because I have raised several corruption cases and other illicit activities inside Buddhist society," he said. "But I do not address internal problems of other religions and raise issues only when they are related to freedom of religion. So some Christian leaders' accusations against me about my role as watchdog are not fair."

He said religious discrimination is preponderant in Korea, citing the ongoing Seosomun Park project funded by the government as a recent example. He is critical of the plan to transform the Seoul Park into a Catholic site. Following Pope Francis's visit to the country, the government pledged to spend 51.3 billion won for the beautification of the area, which houses the Catholic Martyrs' Shrine. According to the master plan, a Catholic church will be established underground at the site to commemorate Korea's Catholic martyrs.

Park questioned the appropriateness of the government sponsorship of the planned Catholic site, considering that the site is also a memorial for victims from other religions. During religious repression in the late Joseon Kingdom, many Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant leaders and martyrs were executed on the site. Thus, Park proposed that policymakers implement a religiously neutral beautification project.

"I don't think the government's decision was appropriate because several Buddhists and the leaders of the home-grown religion Donghak were also martyred there. Catholics were not the only victims," he said.