Buddhism has been practiced on the Korean peninsula for more than 16 centuries (see “Buddhism in Korea“). It survived long centuries of repression under a Confucian dynasty and also challenges to monastic rules during the Japanese occupation in the 20th century. But in recent decades it has faced its biggest challenge yet — militant Christianity.
South Korea is the only east Asian nation in which a “western” religion, Christianity, outnumbers the largest Asian religion, which is Buddhism. According to the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, the population of South Korea is abut 29 percent Christian and 23 percent Buddhist. Most of the remaining South Koreans claim no particular religious affiliation.
Christianity in Korea: Background
Catholicism was introduced in Korea in the early 17th century but was subjected to waves of persecution — as was Buddhism — by the Confucian Joseon Dynasty. But in the late 19th century Korea began to open itself to the outside world, and religious pluralism in Korea was better tolerated. The first Protestant missionary, a Presbyterian, arrived in 1884.
By the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945, approximately 2 percent of Korea’s population was Christian. But by 1991, 25 percent of South Korea’s population was Christian. The reasons for this are complex, but ties forged between South Korea and the United States during the Korean War appear to have been a major factor. Among other things, Christian chaplains somehow monopolized the South Korean military chaplaincy and converted many soldiers, especially young draftees.
Christian Oppression of Buddhism, 1980-1900
Chun Doo-hwan (b. 1931) was a military general and Christian who served as President of South Korea from 1980 to 1988. As President, he adopted anti-Buddhist policies. Historic temples were taken over by the government and turned into tourist attractions, for example.
When monks of the Jogye order of Soen (Zen) Buddhism, the largest Buddhist sect in Korea, criticized Chun, the government began to raid Buddhist temples, including the Jogye main temple in Seoul, and arrest monks. Fifty-five monks were sent to retention camps although none were ever convicted of anything. Other monks were subjected to torture; the abbot of one Jogye temple died as a result. Throughout Chun’s administration, Buddhist monks and nuns were kept under surveillance and frequently accused of being Communist sympathizers.
During Chun’s administration conservative Protestants began to publicly denounce Buddhism and vandalize Buddhist temples and art. For example, in February 1984 red crosses and dirt were smeared on Buddhist wall paintings in a temple near Seoul. In 1985 a Protestant minister named Kim Jingyu and a layman named Kim Songhwa separately organized meetings to denounce Buddhism. That same year some men identified as Christians drove nails into tires of cars parked outside a Zen center and poured corrosive chemicals into the engines. They played gospel songs through a loudspeaker to disrupt the Buddhist service.
Then the temple burnings began. In 1986 an ancient Jogye ceremonial hall, listed as a national treasure, was burned to the ground. A local Christian man confessed to the crime, but police did not prosecute, citing “lack of evidence.” In 1987 a fundamentalist Christian was apprehended after setting fires that destroyed two temple buildings. In 1988 a fire at a Jogye training center destroyed altar paintings considered to be national treasures.
In the next few years, through the remaining 1980s and 1990s, several other arsonists destroyed or substantially damaged approximately 20 more Buddhist temple buildings.
During this time even more Buddhist temples and art were vandalized.. Vandals often painted red crosses on art and smashed or decapitated Buddha statues.In a few cases Christians, including clergy, were caught in the act but not charged.
In 1990 two men broke into the studios of a new Buddhist radio station two days before it was to begin broadcasting. They smashed all of the station’s recording and transmission equipment, using the head of a Buddha to break into recording booths and destroy the computers and equipment. No arrests were made.
For a timeline of incidents culled from South Korean news sources, see South Korea:- A chronology of Christian attacks against Buddhism.