As explained in Part 1 of “Christian-Buddhist Tension in South Korea,” South Korea is the only nation in east Asia in which the largest religion is not Asian. The population of South Korea is about 29 percent Christian and 23 percent Buddhist. About 46 percent of South Koreans claim no specific religious affiliation.
As also explained in Part 1, the number of Christians in South Korea grew rapidly after World War II ended and Korea was divided.between North and South. In 1945, approximately 2 percent of Korea’s population was Christian. But by 1991, 25 percent of South Korea’s population was Christian.
Beginning in1980 many of the newly converted Christians began to burn and vandalize Buddhist temples and art. More than 20 temple buildings were destroyed by arson; crosses were smeared on temple wall paintings; Buddha statues were smashed or decapitated.
In the 1980s the government also began to oppress Buddhism. Under Chun Doo-hwan (b. 1931) who served as President of South Korea from 1980 to 1988, monasteries were sometimes raided and monks arrested on various charges, although none were ever convicted.
1990 to 2000
Burning and vandalism of Buddhist temples continued through the 1990s. Buddhists and other non-Christians serving in the military were sometimes ordered to attend Christian services by their commanders. Some public school teachers were found teaching Bible lessons. One told the class that Buddhist children were “followers of Satan” and restricted their class activities.
In 1995 young fundamentalist Christians began a campaign of aggressive proselytizing on the campus of Dongguk University in Seoul, a Buddhist school, handing out anti-Buddhist literature in front of the school’s main Buddha statue..
An investigative report in the Korea Herald published in July 1998 quoted a Buddhist dharma teacher named Lee Chi-ran: “For them [the Christians], this is a war, Much of the mainstream media is dominated by Christians, and coverage of anti-Buddhist incidents is rare. Many people don’t understand what’s going on.”
After 2000, for a time, the incidents of aggression against Buddhists and Buddhist institutions became less frequent, although the over-representation of Christians in government positions sometimes posed problems for Buddhists.
The election of Lee Myung-bak as President of South Korea in 2008 began a new round of tension, however. Lee, a Presbyterian, had raised alarms as Mayor of Seoul when he said he would “consecrate” his city to God. Then, as President, he chose an almost all-Christian cabinet — out of 16 cabinet seats, there were 12 Christians and one Buddhist.
Shortly after that, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs published a map of Seoul on its website that omitted all Buddhist temples and shrines but gave the location of every Christian church. Then police stopped and searched the car of the head of the Jogye of Soen (Zen) Buddhism, looking for members of a faction protesting the importing of beef.
About this same time, videos began to circulate showing a Protestant minister leading his congregation in shouts calling for the collapse of Buddhist temples, and another in which a prominent Protestant minister said “Buddhist monks are wasting their time. They should convert to Jesus. Is there any Buddhist country in the world that is rich?”
In August 2008 an estimated 60,000 people, including about 7000 monks, rallied in front of the Seoul city hall to protest religious discrimination. Tensions subsided, to a point, when several high-level officials who had been accused of religious favoritism to Christians visited Buddhist temples to apologize.
More recently, people of South Korea generally — not just Buddhists — appear to be growing weary of the antics of the aggressive Christian proselytizers.
See “Buddhism in Korea” for a history of Buddhism before the end of World War II.