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[Editorial] Religion and state

Some in the Korean Protestant churches may believe that they scored a major victory in their campaign against a legislative move to introduce Islamic bonds or “sukuk” here as parties have dropped a bill aimed to exempt various taxes on the special type of loans originating in the Arab world. But is that so?

When we observe the recent actions by religious groups concerning political and social issues, we are confronted with two basic questions. One is how these issues in the secular world, be they the sukuk, free lunch at schools or the four-river development project, relate to their religious faiths. The other is whether the organizations and individuals in the forefront of the social campaigns legitimately represent the general religious population in this country.

Take the example of Hankichong, or the Association of Korean Christian Churches, which has led the movement against the introduction of Islamic bonds. Its executive members made a round of visits to major political parties to express their objections, citing the possibility of profits from sukuk bonds finding their way to terrorist groups in the form of “zakat” ― the obligatory donation to charity in Islamic society.

The group has warned that any party or individual politicians that support the Islamic bonds bill would lose Christian votes in the next general election. Parties accepted their message as the universal opinion of Korean Christians, but they may have been mistaken in doing so. Hankichong, currently embroiled in a corruption scandal relating to the recent election of its chairman, is hardly considered a representative body of the 66 Protestant denominations in Korea.

It is true that the general Christian community is uncomfortable about possible growth of Islamic influence in Korea. They share worries with other members of society about Islamic fundamentalism that is linked to terrorism. Yet, there also are a large number of Christians who can coolly assess the economic benefits from the introduction of Middle East funds against any supposed side-effects.

Some conservative Christian groups are supporting Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon in his fight against the city council and the metropolitan education office to deter their move to provide free lunch for all primary school students. Opinions are sharply divided among churches and individual believers on this issue.

The Jogye Order, Korea’s largest Buddhist sect, is currently pitted against the Lee administration by openly opposing the rivers improvement project. Over the past three years since the election of President Lee, an elder in a Presbyterian church in Seoul, the Jogye Order has been in trouble with government authorities over alleged interference in temple administration, cuts in subsidizing the Templestay program and other issues.

The Catholic Church remains largely aloof to government policies but internal dissent is seen from some progressive-minded priests who are trying to pressure the church leadership to take a firmer stance against government projects that allegedly cause environmental problems.

The Constitution of the Republic of Korea confirms separation of politics and religion and the provision is basically a device against any government attempt to control religion. What happens in this republic today makes one more concerned about interference by churches and temples in government policies, rather than the other way around.

In the controversies involving religious communities, one wonders how much the expressed objections reflect the voices of believers. The protesting pastors and priests need to realize that their activities, if they sufficiently scare politicians, are also turning potential converts away from their churches and temples.
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