Buddhists protest religious discrimination in South Korea

Seoul, South Korea - Tens of thousands of South Korean Buddhists protested Wednesday against what they said was discrimination from the government of conservative Christian President Lee Myung Bak. About 60,000 people, including thousands of monks, took part in the rally and march through central Seoul, television reports said.

"This gathering is not to declare a state of confrontation but to end social conflict and division," said monk Wonhak from the Jogye Order, the country's largest Buddhist sect, which organized the demonstration.

He also called for more tolerance.

Buddhist groups have accused Lee's government, which has been in office since February, of favouring Christians. Lee, a Protestant, filled many of his cabinet posts with Christians in an effort to give more influence to South Korea's Christian community, they charged.

They were also angered when the car of Jigwan, the leader of the Jogye Order, was searched by police in June as he was entering the main Jogye temple in Seoul. Earlier, anti-government protesters had taken refuge at the temple from police.

Since the search, Buddhists have demanded a personal apology from Lee and the dismissal of the National Police Agency chief.

The government offered an olive branch Tuesday when Culture Minister Yu In Chon promised punishment for religious discrimination by government officials, but protest organizers refused to call of Wednesday's rally.

According to government figures, a little more than half of South Koreans claim a religious affiliation. Of those, 43 per cent, or more than 10.7 million, said they are Buddhist, and 55.1 per cent, or 13.8 million, said they are Christian.