Temple Stay participantsAccording to a recent AFP article “Cheap rates and Zen seating: spiritual tourism has taken off in South Korea, offering foreigner and tourists alike a taste of temple life”. The program has become a successful proponent of traditional Korean culture.  The Templestay program in South Korea is familiar to many who have lived in South Korea since the 2002 World Cup, when the program grew out of the need to house foreign visitors to South Korea soccer venus. Basically, templestay allows people to experience what it is like to live and work in a temple while offering insight to an older part of Korean culture and lifestyle. The promotion of Korean culture is a very worthwhile endeavor, however there are problems with some natives who have their own religious agenda:

In 2011, the number of Templestay guests was 212,437, of which around 12% were foreigners. Since 2004 the government has provided subsidies totaling around $100 million to the program which it sees as a force for promoting traditional Korean culture, but not everybody is happy.
Last year, the Korean Association of Church Communication issued a statement arguing that there was “room for conflict” in the government subsidizing a program associated with one particular religion. “There clearly is a problem with financially supporting missionary events by a specific religion,” it said.

which is not a factual or valid concern since templestay is not created to promote Buddhism or win converts.  It is clearly an effort to promote traditional Korean culture, its history and tourism.  This association is the same “Korean Association of Church Communication” that attempted to prevent the Lady Gaga concert in 2012, claiming that Our Christian community needs concerted action to stop young people from being infected with homosexuality and pornography (cite). The Korean Association of Church Communication has also been active in thwarting the plan to encourage Islamic bond sales, claiming that bond sales could cause more money to be channeled to terrorist activities – a contention that is completely unsubstantiated, as well as being a result of their bias against any organization or effort that they perceive as being a part of a non-Christian religion or society, thus evil.

The real, underlying story is the ongoing conflict of interest that divides modern evangelical Christianity in South Korea from any other organization or activity that is perceived to be in conflict with Evangelical thought and goals. Though Korea was originally mostly Buddhist since the unification of the three kingdoms period, Catholicism and American Protestantism found converts here during the 19th Century, and especially since the 60s and the economic development of the 70s, a newer evangelical-style Christianity has flourished throughout Korea. During this period, many of the churches that became successful were not directly affiliated with mainstream Christian religions (United Methodist Church for example) but are home-grown versions, often with their own ideology and goals, which are many times centered upon a pastor or leader within the church who may or may not assume a divine status within his church. The Unification Church, founded in 1954 by “Lord of the Second Advent” Sun Myung Moon or the Soonbokeum and Somang Church are well known examples of such.


An Evangelical Pastor sharing the gospel in Donghwa Temple.

These type of evangelical churches tend to be extreme in their intolerance towards other religions or groups that are considered to be in violation of their evangelical doctrine. These same churches are often ignorant of and biased against their own cultural heritage and history. For some time now, this intolerance has taken the form of vandalism against property, for example, in August of 2012 a protestant minister that belongs to a prominent Church in Daegu (and Korea) defaced (wrote the word “좆” with a magic marker on artwork) and urinated on the altar and wall paintings at Donghwa Temple.
The temple made a complaint to the police on the following day. Ten days after the complaint, the police arrested Seong . . . A spokesperson for the temple commented, “this blasphemy insults and gives psychological harm to Buddhists…While such incidents happen every year, they have grown especially severe under the current government administration (LMB).” In 2010, Donghwa Temple was subject to another religious insult when a local Protestant organization took pictures of themselves stepping on the floor of the temple in street shoes and uploaded it to their homepage. The incident drew criticism from all corners that Protestants were undermining religious harmony. (cite)

Other recent events include:

  • October 4th, 2012, an arsonist tried to burn down Gakhwangjeon Hall of Hwaomsa Temple in Gurye County, Korea
  • On November 2011, the stele that accompanied the stupa at Beopcheonsa temple (Korean National Treasure No. 59) was vandalized by a Christian man that drew a giant cross across the five meter stone statue. He later posted a photo of his work on Facebook and twitter
  • Even earlier, in 2006, during the “Again 1907 in Busan” festival that was Christian-sponsored featured an event where Christians prayed earnestly for all the Buddhist temples and monasteries of the Busan area to be destroyed. Out-going President Lee MyungBak was also the congratulatory commentator of this event. (cite)

The outgoing president has caused much consternation since he has set a bad example during his own tenure. As pointed out by many, as of 2008, 13 of 16 ministers in President Lee Myung Bak’s government were Christians, with only one being Buddhist and this is not counting the various important appointments below that of the minister-level that have been strident in their pro-Christian bias.

Another troubling aspect of Korean Evangelism is its propensity to focus on out-reach efforts at the expense of providing social services to the community at large. Usually most mainstream churches divide their efforts between reaching potential members and providing service to the existing membership. Korean Evangelism, as demonstrated by many churches here, is different in that many churches place a greater emphasis upon missionary-style outreach that is focused upon increasing church membership.  This outreach/missionary effort is so extensive that it has raised the concerns of several nations, such as Turkey, whose intelligence agencies have concluded that Christian missionary activities inside the country have a second motive, parallel to their spread of Christian propaganda. One recent report states that “. . . missionaries ‘cover Turkey like a spider’s web,‘ the report accuses them of focusing on sensitive regions of the country and using the cover of “faith tourism” to target lower-income citizens, youth, children and women. According to the report, the majority of foreign missionaries come from South Korea (number one), the United States, England, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Sweden and Romania. (cite)

As reported in a June 11th article in the Cumhuriyet newspaper, Turkish authorities believe that foreign missionaries are also promoting ethnic divisions, particularly among the Kurds.

Obviously, the incoming South Korean president will need to cultivate respectful and intelligent relations between all religions in Korea, especially when some want to force ideological issues upon governance and cultural policy.  The government should be above factionalism of any sort and seeing how this is also a concern of the president-elect, she may be able to set a better example in these issues.  Putting a curb on “faith tourism” efforts might be a good idea too since the Republic of Korea does wish to maintain good relations with all governments and does not need to their policies sabotaged by malefic ignorance.  Perhaps the government badly needs to perform their own outreach efforts towards the evangelical community so as to educate them to understand the value in knowing their culture and history.

Note: Some further background reading material regarding the history of Protestant evangelism in Korea: The Origin and Characteristics of Evangelical Protestantism in Korea at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,
Dae Young Ryu, and the wiki article for Christianity in Korea, though it is short.