Papal Visit That Thrills Catholics Is Unsettling to Protestants in South Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — 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 that 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.

Since the pope’s arrival Thursday, his visits to a center for handicapped children and his common-man touch have generated front-page news lavishing praise for his humility, which has been celebrated elsewhere. One news agency headlined its report: “Let’s Meet the Pope, ‘The Friend of the Poor,’ ” while the national public broadcaster gushed about his willingness to pose for cellphone pictures with ordinary Koreans.

But not everyone in South Korea has welcomed the pope, who is on a five-day visit meant to acknowledge Asia’s growing importance to the Catholic Church. 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 percent of the population.

“The enemy king has appeared at the center of our nation!” the Rev. Song Choon-gil, a Presbyterian pastor, shouted during a rally of hundreds of Protestants who gathered a few blocks from the papal Mass on Saturday. 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” and “satanic forces” they said Roman Catholicism represents.

Although tensions between South Korea’s Catholics and Protestants are not new, the pope’s visit has brought into focus the often ugly rivalry between churches vying for hearts and souls in South Korea. It also comes as the country is still reeling from accusations by prosecutors that the pastor of a relatively small Christian church siphoned money from the company whose ferry sank in April, killing more than 200 teenagers.

The broader Protestant community has officially welcomed Francis’s visit, the first by a pope to the country in 25 years, and the pope planned to meet the country’s religious leaders on Monday to promote harmony among different faiths. But even many mainstream Protestants feel unsettled by the trip, which comes as some 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 expert on Korean religions. “That silence itself speaks to the resentment Protestants feel toward 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 industrialization. The country is now home to some of the largest megachurches in the world, all of them Protestant, including Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, the world’s largest, with a congregation of more than 800,000.

Competitive proselytizing, however, also created some of the problems now dogging South Korea’s Protestant churches. Some non-Christians are offended by Protestants who seek converts on Seoul’s streets and subways, sometimes shouting through megaphones that nonbelievers will be relegated to hell.

In 2007, Protestants’ evangelizing zeal was criticized after young Presbyterian missionaries from South Korea were kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan, raising questions about whether church leaders had been reckless in sending them there.

Competition for believers has also increased in recent years with a proliferation of small Protestant churches. South Korea has long been open to the creation of new churches that share some beliefs of other Christian groups but are also shaped by the personal beliefs of their founders. Many of the churches are affiliated with major denominations but are so small they 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 the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church is now more accepted in South Korea despite its highly publicized mass weddings, some of the newer groups have been labeled “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, many South Koreans were angered by the news about the church leader with ties to the ferry company. The man, Yoo Byung-eun, who was found dead in June while on the run from the police, was both a co-founder of his church and the head of a business empire, according to prosecutors, who say he and his family were enriching themselves even as they scrimped on safety measures for the ferry.

Mainstream Protestant churches have also suffered financial scandals in recent years as some preachers have been accused of misusing church funds to build their family’s fortunes.

Such scandals are thought to have contributed to troubling news for Protestants: 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.

“Unlike other major religious organizations that have suffered numerous financial and sexual scandals over the years, the Catholic Church in South Korea has proven to be remarkably clean,” Mr. 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 megachurches.”

The Catholic Church has suffered its own problems, mainly criticism that it has focused less attention on the poor in a country already troubled by a growing wealth gap.

Still, the church is more often associated with the downtrodden than are Protestant groups, which generally embrace capitalism wholeheartedly and are aligned with some of the country’s wealthiest citizens and most powerful political leaders. That alliance was especially pronounced under the former president, Lee Myung-bak, a Presbyterian elder and a former business leader; when he was the mayor of Seoul, he vowed to “consecrate” the capital to the Christian god. Catholic leaders, on the other hand, often played a visible role in left-leaning causes, some of which resonated with a public that is generally enthusiastic about capitalism but increasingly concerned about social inequality.

Choo Chin-woo, a local newsmagazine reporter who has specialized in covering the country’s churches, said Francis’s comments expressing concern for the poor and his criticism of capitalist greed had made clear the difference between the pope and the Korean leadership of both Protestant and Catholic churches.

“In the standard of the mainstream Korean churches today,” Mr. Choo said, “the pope is clearly a ‘commie.’ ”