Protestants protest: South Korea’s church militant

Long ago, maybe around 1994, I took a slow train from Pusan – or Busan, if you insist – to Seoul. (No KTX bullet train in those days; though that’s been having its problems lately.) It was October, and I spent much of the journey just watching the colors of autumn roll by.

My seat companion was colorful too. A student recently qualified in Oriental medicine, he was about to go to China, then newly opened to South Koreans. But his real aim, he confided with some excitement, was not strictly medicinal: “Chinese people, they don’t know Jesus!”

This was my first encounter with what is now a global phenomenon. Koreans are tireless rankers. The world’s seventh-largest exporter of goods is also its second-largest exporter of missionaries, after the United States. According to the Korea World Missions Association (KWMA), their number has nearly doubled in five years from 12,159 in 2004 to 22,130 in 2009.

Asia has mostly proved stony ground for Christianity, but Korea is a fascinating exception – for reasons that would make another article. South Korea’s 8.6 million Protestants and 5.1 million Catholics, taken together – not that they always get along – outnumber its 10 million Buddhists. Mind you, the 47% who profess no religion may include many passive Buddhists.

South Korea today is Asia’s most Protestant nation, and evangelical with it. Many want to preach the gospel, as is their right. I’m a firm believer in a free market for faiths; aren’t you?

Well, obviously not if you’re a murderous bigot in Pakistan, or other countries where Islam seems afraid of the competition. In 2004 Iraqi jihadi thugs seized and brutally beheaded a young Korean, Kim Sun-il. They claimed he had conducted “annoying religious activities” under cover of his work as a translator. A harrowing video of him pleading in vain for mercy sharpened the already fierce debate in Seoul about the wisdom of sending troops to Iraq.

As this tragic case shows, evangelists not only put their own lives on the line but can impact on affairs of state. In 2007, 23 Korean missionaries were stupid enough to go to Afghanistan, of all places, defying an official warning from Seoul not to. The Taliban kidnapped them and killed two; a large ransom was paid for the rest. Such behavior is just plain irresponsible.

Yet they’re still at it. In January staff at the South Korean Embassy in Sana’a had to rush out to stop Korean missionaries singing hymns on the street in the Yemeni capital – for the third time in a month. Christian proselytizing is banned in Yemen; you can be jailed – or worse. In 2009 a Yemeni suicide bomb killed four Korean tourists, and a young Korean woman, Eom Young-sun, was among nine foreign religious medical volunteers kidnapped and murdered.

Here I make a distinction. Ms Eom was doing a worthy job, and knew the risks. I respect and mourn her. Similarly, I applaud those brave souls, many Christian, who help North Koreans in China on their long and perilous journeys to Seoul and freedom. Several such have been jailed in China, then deported. They are the lucky ones. At least two South Korean pastors in northeast China have been abducted by Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) agents: Ahn Seung-woon in 1995, and Kim Dong-shik in January 2000. The latter is thought to have died of hunger and torture in 2001.

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In my book, Ahn and Kim are – or were, God rest their souls – heroes. Whereas those hymn-singers in Sana’a are idiots. Some, reportedly, were students on vacation getting a cheap thrill – while putting at risks the lives of Korean business people who live and work in Yemen.

Heroes, idiots – and holy fools. Remember Robert Park? The young Korean-American who on Christmas Day 2009 marched into North Korea and a whole lot of trouble, calling on Kim Jong-il to repent. He claims to have been sexually tortured there. In interviews he is clearly not well, and latest reports are that he’s checked back into hospital. May he find healing.

Then there was Park’s copycat, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who pulled the same stunt a month later. This time it took former US president Jimmy Carter, no less, to fly to Pyongyang to get him out. Gomes appears less unhinged than Park, so he has less excuse. Faith and compassion are all very well, but judgment and prudence are Christian virtues too. (And don’t even start me on Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who as far as I know haven’t yet claimed divine guidance for the irresponsible antics which required Bill Clinton to come rescue them from Kim Jong-il.)

Meanwhile, back in Seoul, Protestants are – well, protesting. Unusually, the target of their wrath is one of their own: none other than President Lee Myung-bak, whose own intense Presbyterian allegiances were well described in these pages by Sunny Lee – no relation, I assume; just kidding, Sunny – even before he took office three years ago. Since then Lee – the president – has managed to offend Buddhists in every way possible, as well as Catholics whose bishops have condemned his flagship US$20 billion plan to “restore” four major rivers as a potential ecological disaster – much as he likes to tout his supposed green credentials.

Undaunted, on March 3 Lee infuriated the Buddhists yet again, and was widely criticized in the Seoul press for insensitivity, when he and his wife were photographed kneeling at an annual Protestant prayer breakfast. As the left-wing Hankyoreh wittily put it, this “marked the first time a sitting South Korean president sat on his knees in a public place”.

Why was he there? Some might say the president is on his knees politically too. His fellow Protestants had been Lee’s loyal supporters – until now. So what prompted an influential religious leader like David Yonggi Cho – founder-leader of Yoido Full Gospel Church, the world’s largest single congregation – to declare war on Lee and threaten to topple him? Dear reader, allow me to me keep you in suspense for a little while, and to take you back in time.

Yoido Full Gospel Church: That rang a bell. But David Cho? I thought he was Paul Cho. And so indeed he used to be. But in 1992. “God showed him that Paul Cho had to die and David Cho was to be resurrected in his place.” In the same year Cho was elected Chairman of the World Assemblies of God Fellowship: the first non-American to head the planet’s largest Pentecostalist denomination, with 50 million members in 60 countries.

So a big fish, if a contentious one. Cho’s view that material wealth shows God’s blessing is not to all tastes, mine included. I once started writing a song, which got no further than this:

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I don’t recall seeing Jesus with the winners;
He hung out with publicans and sinners.

Others say Cho runs a cult, and that his theology is heretical. His business practices and reluctance to retire (he is 75) have their critics too. But he is a mighty power in the land.

He was big already back in 1989, when on my fourth visit I decided it was time to seek out some Korean experiences which had so far eluded me. I resolved to do two things: Go to Yoido Full Gospel Church (YFGC), and get tear-gassed. Not both at the same time, you understand.

(While speaking of “typical” Korea, a quick aside: In over 20 trips, I have never eaten dog. Never looked for it, never been offered it; it’s just never crossed my path. Surprise you?)

I duly fulfilled my resolution, but can’t say I’d care to repeat either experience. Each in its own way I found choking. (Admittedly my preferred form of worship is an hour of Quaker silence, so horses for courses.) YFGC is totally over the top. Not just an organ, but a full 50-piece orchestra. The church seats 12,000, and is full up for seven Sunday services – with a further 20,000 following on TV in overflow chapels, according to The Economist in 2007.

People may praise God as they please, of course. And YFGC clearly pleases a lot of people. But the politics stuck in my craw. In that second summer of South Korea’s new democracy, two radicals – Moon Kyu-hyun, a turbulent priest still going strong; and a student, “flower of unification” Im Su-kyong, who has since repented – had illicitly sneaked off to Pyongyang.

This was a big deal at the time, especially to Pastor Cho. You’d think the world had ended. I’ll never forget his astonishing invocation: “Lord, save this nation which is heading for communism!” And the faithful, in their thousands, responding with a heartfelt “Amen!”

So much for Paul aka David Yonggi Cho’s political nous. 22 years later, it’s got no better. Only now, the threat is – had you guessed? – Islam. What’s got him and his ilk hot under the collar with Lee is a proposed bill to give tax relief to sukuk (Islamic bonds) – I don’t have to explain those in Asia Times Online, hopefully – the same as interest-bearing accounts receive.

Islamic finance is a trillion-dollar business. South Korea has heavy commercial involvement in the Muslim world, all the way from Indonesia to Libya. In the latter, even when it was a pariah (first time around), Korean firms won huge construction and other contracts. Yet there too a Korean pastor got himself arrested last year. It took four visits by Lee’s big brother and fixer-in-chief, Lee Sang-deuk, to free him. (There were other issues in play too.)

South Korean banks long to emulate the chaebol (conglomerates) like Samsung and Hyundai and go global. Specifically, they’d like to attract capital from the Middle East – which means having sukuk products in their portfolio. There may also be a link here, though this is denied, to a recent deal to build nuclear power plants in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Much touted initially, it now transpires that Seoul is having to lend half the US$20 billion cost.

This is the 21st century, right? It’s the age of globalization – on which South Korea depends more than most, and more than is healthy. Islamic finance may once have seemed strange to non-Muslims, but sukuk bonds are now a normal part of the landscape. In an interdependent world, anyway, we respect one another’s beliefs and practices. This is called civilization.

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Not in Seoul, apparently. Another cleric has accused Muslim nations of fighting “economic jihad”, claiming in all seriousness that the planned legislation would enable them to wield oil money to promote the Islamization of Korea. Thus the Reverend Kiel Ja-yeon: no fringe nutcase, but the head of the Christian Council of Korea. It was he who organized the prayer breakfast. In similar vein, Yonggi Cho met finance minister Yoon Jeung-hyun February 24 and later bragged: “I told him this will be a life-or-death fight.”

Specifically, Cho threatened to mobilize the Protestant vote against candidates supporting the sukuk bill in by-elections on April 27. These aren’t crucial. Whatever happens, Lee’s ruling conservative Grand National Party (GNP) will keep control of the National Assembly. But with barely a year to go till the next general election in April 2012, they’ll be seen as a straw in the wind. A separate presidential election follows in December 2012; Lee can’t run again.

Hang on, though. In theory the GNP controls the assembly, but in practice they’ve already caved in to the backwoodsmen. Or backwoodswomen. Another implacable opponent of the bill is Lee Hye-hoon, a Christian GNP lawmaker and a rare woman in Korean politics. She has been quoted as saying that the 2.5% of returns from sukuk bonds which go to charity (zakat) that may be used to support terrorism.

Faced with this, on February 22 the GNP decided not to bring the bill forward for debate, at least until after the April by-elections. It remains to be seen how it fares then. The liberal opposition Democrats (DP) are no less craven: citing the alleged UAE nuclear link as an excuse, when everyone knows they too are scared of losing the bigot vote. The DP leader, Sohn Hak-kyu, was down on his knees with Lee at the same Protestant prayer breakfast.

All credit then to former premier Lee Hoi-chang, head of the small Liberty Forward Party (LFP). A Catholic, Lee is even more right-wing than his namesake the president. Yet his is a rare voice of sanity: “The constitution states that religion and politics are strictly separate. Churches should stay away from politics.” That brought instant criticism from the Council of Presbyterian Churches in Korea, who challenged the LFP leader to a public debate.

I’ll leave the last word – well, almost – to a columnist in the Hankyoreh. According to Jung E-gil, writing on March 3, both David Yonggi Cho and Kiel Ja-yeon have in the past marked Easter by carrying big wooden crosses, as if to re-enact the passion of Christ. But there was a difference. They bore no burden: these crosses were on wheels. No nails pierced their flesh; instead, padding protected their delicate skin and expensive suits. Jung quotes a Protestant online newspaper News and Joy: “Death waited at the end of Jesus’s march with the cross … whereas beautiful luxury cars were waiting after these men’s performance.”

Pharisees is the word, if I recall. Also: Render unto Caesar. Strange Christians, these.

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