[Outlook]Keep church and state separate

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[Outlook]Keep church and state separate

Candlelight vigils have the power to stir up emotions, as large crowds attend the events. The Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice held a mass on Monday at the plaza in front of Seoul City Hall, stirring a variety of feelings in people’s hearts.

The Catholic ritual was impressive. While a hymn signaling the beginning of the mass reverberated, priests who had gathered at the southern side of the plaza walked towards an altar, splitting the crowd down the middle. The ocean of people made way for them, just like Moses parting the Red Sea. An attendant approached a makeshift altar on the back of a truck and said, “Father, this event has been moving from the very beginning,” hopping with joy.

The Catholic Church is one of the world’s biggest and most durable institutions, consisting of cardinals, bishops, priests and ordinary believers. At the mass, followers gathered happily and nuns formed large heart shapes with their arms over their heads. Even though the mass was delayed by more than an hour, few left the plaza.

But the sermon itself wasn’t that impressive. It was the same as all the other statements that have been made at other civil gatherings. Nonetheless, the crowd applauded, cheered and lifted up candles.

The most impressive part of the gathering was the street march at the end. Father Kim In-kook wrapped up the mass and before leading the march, he urged participants to make the demonstration peaceful, saying that nonviolence gives power to candlelight vigils. The protesters marched for about one hour, passing Namdaemun and Euljiro. When they arrived back at the plaza, they shouted “Hurray for Korea, hurray for democracy, hurray for all of us!” and ended the event.

However, the elation was short-lived. The mass had cast a long, dark shadow. Candlelight vigils have already been transformed into political events. The gathering led by the priests’ association marked the beginning of the religious sector’s participation in current politics.

A Protestant Christian organizations plans to hold an event on Thursday and Buddhist organizations on Friday. The move by the Buddhists is particularly worrisome. The Buddhist community has complained that the political field discriminates against Buddhism and its discontent has been growing. As the president is a devout Christian, Korean Buddhists have been sensitive of late. A good example that caused concern is how the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs’ online traffic information system is missing information on Buddhist temples. While even small churches in back alleys appear on the map, large temples in Seoul, such as Jogye and Bongeun, are missing, causing misunderstanding. The Buddhist community has a long list of cases of discrimination against Buddhism. The Buddhist ceremony on Friday has thus been called an emergency meeting to discuss the current situation in the country and the Lee administration’s perceived religious favoritism.

In world history, the separation of religion and politics was the result of modernization. The Reformation ended the dark era of the Middle Ages. If religion, the power in heaven, holds power on earth, it becomes a dogma. Countless religious wars have stained the history of the Western world with blood. Thus, countries in the modern era have separated religion and politics, just as we have in Korea. Article 20 of the Constitution states that no state religion is to be recognized and religion and politics have to be separated.

Maintaining this separation is easier said than done in reality, even in the 21st century. It is impossible to explain the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the Iraq War without mentioning religion. The conservative Protestant Christian community has openly expressed its support for President Lee Myung-bak, while others criticize the community’s action.

This is not the first time the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice has taken part in politics. Few can deny that the association made a crucial contribution to the democratization process in the 1970s and 1980s. But now it is a different era. In the dark period no one else could shout slogans condemning the dictatorship, and only the priests’ association could stand up against authoritarian rule. This was possible because the priests had courage based on their religious conviction. As there were no strong forces in the civic sector to confront absolute power, priests had to step up. That is why the archbishop of Seoul, Stephen Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan, sided with the priests at that time.

However, all the slogans that the priests’ association shouted on the streets on Monday were the same as those shouted by ordinary citizens. These days, anybody can say that much in public. Politics can now be left to ordinary people. Religious communities should not be holding candles in the streets.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Oh Byung-sang
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