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Lee stresses respect for others in congregation with Protestants

President Lee Myung-bak said Thursday that he wished the South Korean church could help bring the country together, without mentioning its latest fury over a bill on Islamic bonds.

“I hope the Korean church can untie the knots of social conflict and serve as a bridge for national integration,” Lee said during the national prayer breakfast in southern Seoul.

“I believe an attitude of understanding and respecting others while restraining oneself is crucial now for our society to harmonize and mature.”

Lee did not bring up the Protestant community’s strong disapproval of the legislation on Islamic bonds, or sukuk, that caused the ruling Grand National Party to put off deliberations on the bill last week.

Influential pastor Cho Yong-gi, founder of the Yeouido Full Gospel Church, even said he would start a campaign to force Lee out of power if the government continues to push for the sukuk legislation. Other Protestant leaders have threatened to vote against lawmakers who support the bill.

Cho did not attend the congregation Thursday as he was traveling abroad on business.

Lee’s office has declined to comment on the warnings from the Protestant community, saying instead that the government will continue to persuade those who misunderstand the bill.
President Lee Myung-bak and first lady Kim Yoon-ok pray on their knees during the national prayer breakfast in Seoul on Thursday. Lee, a Protestant elder, has faced criticism from some Christian leaders over the government’s Islamic finance plan.(Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)
President Lee Myung-bak and first lady Kim Yoon-ok pray on their knees during the national prayer breakfast in Seoul on Thursday. Lee, a Protestant elder, has faced criticism from some Christian leaders over the government’s Islamic finance plan.(Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)

Lee’s calls for “understanding and respecting others” on Thursday may be his indirect response to the recent furor.

“The Korean church has always been at the forefront of changes to make the society more positive,” Lee told some 3,500 Christians attending the annual prayer breakfast.

“(Korea) must strive to achieve reconciliation and peace, starting with us Christians.”

Aiming to tap into the Islamic finance market, the government submitted the bill in 2009 to exempt taxes on sukuk. Because the Islamic law forbids charging or paying interests, sukuk bond holders are offered dividends or property leasing profits instead as compensation, raising tax issues. Sukuk investors are put at a disadvantage under the current Korean law as they would be charged with heavier taxes compared to conventional bond investors.

Christian groups like the Korean Association of Church Communication have been pressing legislators to drop the plan to encourage Islamic bond sales, claiming that it grants excessive tax favor to sukuk investors and that it could cause more money to be channeled to terrorist activities.

The parliamentary committee on strategy and finance said it will hold a public hearing on the sukuk bill Friday at the National Assembly.

Professors, securities experts and lawyers will take part in the closed-door hearing, the committee said.

By Kim So-hyun (sophie@heraldcorp.com)
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