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Priests and politics in South Korea

The clergy has a long tradition of protest and pro-democracy activism

Jason Strother for Wall Street Journal, Seoul

Jason Strother for Wall Street Journal, Seoul

Updated: August 14, 2014 06:49 PM GMT
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Priests and politics in South Korea

Interior of Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul. (Photo courtesy of JTN News)

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Pope Francis will on Monday celebrate mass at Seoul’s Myeongdong Cathedral, the scene of standoffs between the Roman Catholic clergy and the South Korean dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s. The military rulers are gone, but some priests still wage a war of words against the government.

The Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice (CPAJ) is an outspoken group that began protesting against President Park Geun-hye after it was revealed that cyberwarfare agents broke political neutrality and planted messages online to support her 2012 election. Ms. Park has denied involvement.

“This government conceals the truth,” said Father Na Seung-gu, a member of the CPAJ.

The CPAJ priests don’t only preach from their pulpits – they often take to the streets to spread their views. In November, a priest named Park Chang-sin stirred anger for suggesting that North Korea was within its rights to attack the south if Seoul continued to hold military exercises with the United States near the border.

The Catholic Church played an important role in South Korea’s journey to democracy by giving refuge to dissidents and funding student activists. The CPAJ, a voluntary group that was founded in 1974, has its roots in this movement, said Brother Anthony of the Taizé ecumenical community, who only goes by his monastic name.

He said this history of activism drives pastors in the CPAJ to tackle what they see as corruption and abuses of power in modern-day Korea. But the antigovernment stance isn’t so valid since the downfall of the military dictatorship in 1987 and the group sometimes seems to protest for the sake of protesting, he added.

Father Park Mun-su, director of the Jesuit Research Center for Advocacy and Solidarity, said the CPAJ has veered too far into politics, which has overshadowed its social welfare work such as standing up for laid off workers and displaced residents, as well as helping families of the Sewol ferry victims.

But other Catholic leaders are also critical of the political establishment and say the church has a role to play in pushing for social justice.

Father Park Dong-ho, pastor of Shinjeong Catholic Church, said South Korea’s democracy movement didn’t fully introduce values like human rights and justice into society. It is the responsibility of the Catholic Church to do so, the 55-year-old said, adding that Korean leaders only give lip service to democracy and are moving the country backward.

Full story: South Korea's protesting priests

Source: Wall Street Journal Asia/Korea Realtime

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