South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a devout Christian, yesterday apologized to the nation’s Buddhists following nationwide protests against alleged religious bias by his administration.
Lee was speaking at a Cabinet meeting which approved regulations banning religious discrimination by public servants.
“It is deeply regrettable that some government officials offended the Buddhist community — even if they did not not mean to — with such words and behavior as could cause misunderstanding about a religious bias,” he said.
Leaders of the country’s 10 million Buddhists — outnumbered by 13.7 million Christians — had threatened more mass protests unless Lee apologized.
The largest Buddhist order, the Jogye, said his remarks represented “a more sincere attitude” by the government. But it repeated demands for the sacking of the national police chief over an alleged insult to its head monk, Jigwan.
The Buddhist protests, rare in a country that guarantees freedom of religion, followed months of street rallies against US beef imports that rocked Lee’s administration.
Buddhists have been uneasy over what they see as a Christian bias since Lee, a Presbyterian church elder, came to power on Feb. 25.
The Jogye lists 23 cases of alleged favoritism, including the appointments of Protestants to major government posts.
An online map published by two ministries, showing Seoul’s churches but not major Buddhist temples, also sparked anger.
In early July seven activists wanted by police following the beef protests took refuge in Seoul’s Jogyesa temple. Tensions grew in late July when police stopped a car carrying Jigwan outside the temple and searched the trunk.
Police chief Eo Cheong-soo, himself a Christian, apologized and disciplined two senior officers. But Buddhists accused police of treating the head monk like a criminal and called for Eo’s resignation.
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