|The Foreigner’s Cemetery Park in Seoul is a battleground between two churches, one foreign and the other Korean. Provided by Mapo District Office|
The Foreigner’s Cemetery Park in Yanghwajin, western Seoul, is the resting place for many of those who laid the groundwork for converting Korea, once almost entirely Confucian or Buddhist, into one of the most Christianized countries in Asia.
Relatively unknown to secular Koreans, the graves of around 100 foreign Christian missionaries and their families, most of whom died in the last years of the Joseon Dynasty, is a must see for many of Korea’s roughly 14 million Christians.
Those visiting the cemetery’s 14,000 square meters likely appreciate the sacrifice of those early missionaries, but they may be unaware that a present day conflict is underway between two Protestant churches one foreign and one Korean over the right to manage the cemetery and affiliated properties.
The foreign congregation, Seoul Union Church, with 150 members, claims that its Korean neighbors in the 2,000-strong 100th Anniversary Memorial Church are trying to push it out of a chapel on the cemetery grounds, which the union church has occupied since 1986 and has shared with the memorial church since 2005.
Seoul Union, founded in 1885, was the first Protestant church in Korea and its congregation has included some of the most venerable foreign families in the country. Many of its former members are buried in the cemetery. It worries that a demand by the memorial church that it change its service time from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. is a disguised attempt to displace it from the cemetery and the chapel. The deadline for the schedule change is Sunday, Aug. 5.
The situation has become so bitter that it seems headed for court. Both sides accuse the other of mismanaging the cemetery, while Seoul Union leaders say a long-standing agreement to leave the property under the effective control of the foreign church is being violated.
Union church member John Linton, a prominent Seoul doctor whose missionary family has been in Korea for more than a century, says the prospects for resolution are bleak. “We think this is a kind of war,” he said.
Rev. Prince C. Oteng-Boateng, the current pastor of the union church, recently sent a letter to Korean church leaders asking for help. The pastor requested supporters to attend the morning service at union church on Aug. 5 and block any physical coercion by the Korean church.
“We believe that any attempt by the memorial church to disrupt or forcibly remove Seoul Union Church from its rightful home, and to obstruct our right of usage, will result in a public demonstration [against] its actions,” the pastor said in the letter.
“We are appealing to you and the entire Korean Christian community to pray with Seoul Union Church and to seek your direct intervention in defeating this persecution,” the pastor wrote.
Jung Yong-sup, a deacon of the memorial church and head of a committee founded to deal with the issue, said the Korean church has the legal right as owner of the cemetery and the building to require its “tenant” to shift the time it uses the building.
Jung denied that the ultimate aim is to kick out the foreign church.
“They have long claimed to be the caretaker of the cemetery and the building, but they have done very little,” Jung said of his foreign co-religionists. “We need to let them know who the real owner is so that they do not interrupt us any more when we try to manage the cemetery, which is a historical monument in Korea’s Christian history.
“As long as they cause no trouble, we don’t have any intention of driving them out. Also the shift of the service time will protect union church members from possible conflicts with members of the memorial church.”
The roots of the conflict lie in the early history of Protestant Christianity in Korea.
In 1890, King Gojong designated the land as a tomb site for foreign missionaries, in commemoration of their sacrifice.
According to the Seoul Union Church, for decades the land was under the care of the Kyungsung European-American Cemetery Association, comprised of church members, but that changed in 1961 when then-President Park Chung Hee enacted a law banning foreigners from owning land in Korea. The church was unable to register the cemetery in the name of the association and the site was in a kind of legal limbo after being designated a park by the Seoul city government in 1965.
In 1985, three leaders of the cemetery association, including Dr. Horace Grant Underwood III, a grandson of the founder of Yonsei University, requested a group called the Council for the 100th Anniversary of the Korean Church, which was founded in 1985 to celebrate the centennial of the Korean Protestant Church, to register the land on behalf of Seoul Union Church. The condition, the union church says, was that it would have the right to use the cemetery.
The committee accepted the condition, Seoul Union leaders say, and even promised to erect a chapel within the cemetery as a permanent home for the church. The next year, Memorial Chapel was built with donations from many Korean Protestant groups, and it was celebrated as the first permanent home for Seoul Union Church, which had been meeting in hotels and borrowed halls.
The union church says the bilateral relationship between the congregation and the committee was fine until Underwood died in 2004.
The next year, the centennial committee designated itself a congregation and began to share use of the Memorial Chapel. Union church was also informed that the committee planned to take over the Memorial Chapel and the land as its legal owners, according to union church.
“We are concerned that the centennial committee and the memorial church have not honored the many commitments made before the LORD to protect and support the ministry of Seoul Union Church,” Rev. Oteng-Boateng said in the letter to church leaders.
Jung argued that such claims are “perverted” by Seoul Union “due to its misconception of the owner-user relationship and its lack of understanding of the law.”
He acknowledged that the cemetery association cooperated when the centennial committee registered the land, but said there was no precondition to guarantee a permanent place for the union church. He said the committee, with good intentions, allowed the union church to use the building.
But as the legal owner of both the cemetery and the chapel, Jung said, the committee has the right to manage them.
“We [the committee] did a favor to union church, by letting them stay in the building,” Jung said. “Now they say we are ingrates, but they are the ones who are ungrateful.”
Linton, who was born here and is a great grandson of Eugene Bell, a missionary who was buried in the cemetary, claims the centennial committee violated registration laws for the cemetery land and thus its ownership claim is invalid.
“The centennial committee broke the law to claim ownership of the cemetery and made it look like it belonged to us before snatching it away,” said Linton, the head of the International Health Care Center at Yonsei University’s Severance Hospital, in Korean. “Even though the cemetery association has been the caretaker of the cemetery, there was no legal owner of it at that time . Now we will fight to return this cemetery to its real owner, the Korean government and the public.”
According to Linton, the centennial committee, dormant since union church occupied the memorial chapel, reactivated itself recently to fight against the actions of the memorial church.
He said the case is headed to the court. Yonsei University, which was founded by the Underwood family and still has ties to the clan, will give its full support to Seoul Union, Linton said.
“They [the Union church and the cemetery association] say they are the caretaker of the cemetery, but they didn’t do anything,” Jung said. “Everything in the cemetery was a mess without proper care.”
The union church also complains that the larger memorial church is using the cemetery as a “parking lot” on Wednesdays and Sundays, when its members gather for services.
The memorial church admitted it allows cars to be parked along cemetery pathways but said it was necessary due to lack of space. “There was no intention to harm the cemetery,” Jung said.
“The cemetery turns into a gigantic parking lot,” Linton said. “If they really respected the spirit of the cemetery, they wouldn’t do that.”
The National Council of Churches in Korea, the largest association of Protestant churches in Korea, worries that the case could tarnish the church’s image.
“We don’t know the details, but we know there has been a conflict between the two churches,” said Rev. Joseph Park, an official of the church body. “This will serve no one’s interest if it goes to court. We will try to help them [the two churches] meet together and resolve this before things get uglier.”
By Moon Gwang-lip Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]