Papal visit to S Korea, first in 25 years, triggers debate

Protestant groups fear Catholic encroachment as Christians make up 29 per cent of the population.

In a symbolic moment for the Vatican and South Korea’s 5.1 million Catholics, hundreds of thousands of people cheered as Pope Francis rode through central Seoul on Saturday to lead a Mass to beatify 124 martyrs directly in front of the palace of the old Korean dynasty whose kings killed them more than a century ago. 

“It feels like my heart is bursting,” said Yoon Ji Hyang, 45, between screams, as she jumped up and down to get a glimpse of the pope as Francis, waving and smiling, passed by on the city’s main boulevard. “The whole land seems to be blessed by his visit.” 

But not everyone in South Korea has welcomed the pope, who began a five-day visit. And it is not Buddhists or Confucians - the country’s two major non-Christian religious groups - who are publicly expressing unhappiness with his visit but members of Protestant groups who fear Catholic encroachment in a country where Christians make up 29 per cent of the population. 

“The enemy king has appeared at the centre of our nation!” Rev Song Choon Gil, a Presbyterian pastor, shouted during a rally of hundreds of Protestants who gathered a few blocks from the papal Mass. “This will be the beginning of a great curse for the nation.” 

Accompanied by a band, the evangelical Protestants sang hymns and danced, shouting that they were sounding “the trumpets of spiritual war” against the “idol worship,” “fraud” and “satanic forces” they said Roman Catholicism represents. Nearby, another Protestant group marched, led by a barefoot man who raised a red cross, repeatedly shouting for God to “rain down punishment on the pope, the anti-Christ.” 

The pope’s visit - in which he has been lauded for the humility that has made him popular elsewhere - has brought into focus the often ugly rivalry between the Catholic and Protestant churches as they vie for hearts and souls in South Korea. The broader Protestant community has officially welcomed Francis’s visit, the first by a pope here in 25 years. But even many mainstream Protestants feel unsettled by the trip, which comes as some Protestant denominations are suffering image problems and stagnating membership after decades of explosive growth. 

“What is interesting is that there is very little mention of the pope’s visit to Korea in Protestant media, even though it is the biggest news in the country right now,” said Koo Se Woong, an academic who specialises in Korean religions. “That silence itself speaks to the resentment Protestants feel towards the Catholic Church, which enjoys a greater level of public trust than the Protestant side.” 

Catholics first brought Christianity to Korea more than two centuries ago. But Protestant churches pursued aggressive evangelism, especially in the 1970s and 1980s when they reached out to the millions of people who migrated to cities during a period of rapid industrialisation. The country is now home to some of the largest mega churches in the world, all of which are Protestant, including Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, the world’s largest, with a congregation of more than 8,00,000. 

Hyper-competitive proselytising, however, also created some of the problems now dogging South Korea’s Protestant churches. South Korea has long been open to churches that share some beliefs of other Christian groups but are also shaped by the personal beliefs of their founders. That openness has led to a proliferation small churches, many of which are affiliated with major denominations but are squeezed into buildings crowded with restaurants, hair salons and bars. 

Some, however, are more controversial and have no official connection to other denominations. While Rev Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church is now more accepted in South Korea despite its highly publicised mass weddings, some of the newer groups have been labelled “cults” for their unique interpretations of the Bible and for the notoriety of their leaders. 

The head of one such church is serving a 10-year prison term after persuading women to have sex with him in the belief that it would save their souls. And more recently, the leader of another church was accused by prosecutors of siphoning cash from a ferry company whose ship, the Sewol, sank in April, killing more than 300 people, mostly teenagers. (The man, Yoo Byung Eun, was found dead in June while on the run from the police.) 

Stagnated numbers

In recent years, the number of Protestants in South Korea has stagnated. The Catholic Church has experienced drastic growth, with membership increasing from nearly 1.9 million in 1985 to more than 5.1 million in the most recent government census on religion, in 2005. Protestants are still the dominant Christian group in South Korea with 8.6 million members, but in a widely cited annual survey conducted in December by the Christian Ethics Movement of Korea, South Koreans selected Catholicism as the most trustworthy religion, followed by Buddhism and then Protestantism. 

Protestant groups, especially under the country’s previous president, Lee Myung Bak, a Presbyterian elder and a former business leader, have increasingly been perceived among non-Christians as aggressively capitalist and evangelical, and out of touch with ordinary Koreans. Catholic leaders often played a visible role in left-leaning causes that resonated with the public. 

“Unlike other major religious organisations that have suffered numerous financial and sexual scandals over the years, the Catholic Church in South Korea has proven to be remarkably clean,” Koo said. “So I am not surprised that the South Korean Catholic Church, with its strong moral authority, is enjoying a resurgence in the age of moral vacuum, while Protestant churches have stagnated, plagued by the perception of moral decrepitude and obsession with building mega churches.” 

All this has caused considerable hand-wringing in some Protestant circles. One reason cited for the gains by the Catholic Church has been its willingness to accept some local traditions, particularly the Confucian practice of ancestor worship. In contrast, many Protestant groups are increasingly forcing members to reject Confucian rites, causing rifts within families. The practice remains a major point of contention between Catholics and Protestant groups. 

“It helped the Catholic Church lower the wall with the people, presenting itself as more flexible,” said Byun Byoung Tak, a Presbyterian pastor. “But they were violating the Bible for popularity.” The Catholic Church’s moral authority stems largely from its struggle for democracy and human right under the past military dictatorship. 

In recent years, right-wing Protestant groups have become vocal against what they see as Catholic tolerance for religious plurality and Communism - an inflammatory word in South Korea, where views on North Korea remain a dividing line between the political right and left. During regular outdoor rallies, they also espouse conservative and anti-Communist, pro-American views typical of many Protestant churches in South Korea; they wave South Korean and American flags and burn the North Korean leaders in effigy. 

Choo Chin Woo, a local news magazine reporter who has specialised in covering the country’s churches, said that the mainstream Catholic leadership had itself become more conservative after Cardinal Kim Sou Hwan, a charismatic spokesman for the downtrodden, died in 2009. Many say they hope that Francis’ visit will help the church refocus on its traditional priority. 

“In the standard of the mainstream Korean churches today, the pope is clearly a 'commie,'” Choo said, referring to Francis’s comments expressing concern for the poor and his criticism of capitalist greed. 

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