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Unchristian acts in land of Buddha

THE TROUBLE began when the abbot of the Hall of Brilliant Illumination, Cho Won Song, started coming across what he calls "mysteries": piles of human excrement, left in and around his Buddhist temple.

From time to time, there would be unexplained deliveries of another kind: Bibles, sent by airmail from addresses that always turned out to be fake. Half the temples in Seoul, according to the Venerable Won Song, had experienced the same kind of thing and such events were irritating, but not especially disturbing. Certainly, nothing prepared him for the events of spring 1996.

Shortly before 1am on 19 April, he noticed a bright light through the window of his house adjoining the temple. He ran outside to find the Hall of Brilliant Illumination ablaze. The fire-engines arrived late, hampered by the narrow lane leading up the hillside, and by the next morning the temple had burnt to the ground.

"The police estimated the damage at 4.5bn won (pounds 1.9m)," says the Venerable Won Song, "but the value of a temple is incalculable. Two magnificent wooden halls, burnt to ashes." The Venerable Won Song had also commissioned 500 statues of the Buddha's disciples, which he had painted by hand. Several of the pieces were classified as national treasures.

Over the smoking remains of the temple lingered the smell of paraffin; an empty carton of the stuff was found in the ruins. In two years, the police appear to have made no progress in catching the arsonist, but the Abbot has no doubts about who is responsible, and about how he or she did it.

"In the last few years, there have been more and more of these attacks, and nine times out of ten when they catch somebody, it is a Christian," says the Abbot.

Two other temples within a few miles of the Hall of Brilliant Illumination suffered arson attacks on the same night; one of them, Hwagye-sa, has suffered repeated visits from a man on a motorbike who has three times thrown a Molotov cocktail into the worship hall before speeding off. And these represent just a fraction of the nationwide count. Every year, all over Korea, Christians are vandalising and destroying Buddhist temples and harassing their worshippers.

After the Philippines and Vietnam, South Korea has one of the biggest Christian populations in East Asia - government figures suggest that 10.5 million of 43 million South Koreans identify themselves as Christian, compared with 12 million Buddhists. Most are Protestant, followers of evangelical denominations founded by American missionaries in the late 19th century.

At that time, Confucian conservatives in Korea were waging a war of persecution against Buddhism and Catholicism in which they were sometimes aided by Protestant sects. Among a handful of Protestants, it seems, the war is still going on.

Between 1986 and 1996, according to a study carried out at Sejong University in Seoul, at least 20 temples or Buddhist shrines were damaged or destroyed, including some of the most famous in the country.

According to a recently formed Buddhist group, the Committee to Counter Religious Discrimination (CCRD), there were 20 more such attacks last year alone, as well as countless lesser incidents of vandalism, harassment and discrimination.

A man claiming to be a former Buddhist monk raised a banner in Seoul reading "Buddha Hell, Jesus Heaven". In the town of Chinhae, a Protestant minister burst into a Buddhist sanctuary, damaging altar paintings and sculptures with a microphone swung over his head. This summer, a man carrying a Bible and a hammer smashed and beheaded 750 Buddhist statues on the island of Cheju.

Some put the attacks down to the peculiar history of the Korean Christians, who won great respect for their resistance to the brutal Japanese occupation at a time when some Buddhist leaders had been co-opted by the colonisers.

In 1993, Korea's first civilian president, Kim Young Sam, an elder in the Presbyterian church, also became the country's first Christian leader. His successor, Kim Dae Jung, is a life-long Catholic; Buddhists complain that the two democratically elected leaders have failed to observe the religious impartiality followed by their authoritarian predecessors.

The subject is little discussed, almost taboo, among ordinary Koreans and is rarely covered outside the Buddhist media.

"Other countries have more serious problems with religious intolerance," says Tom Welsh, a reporter for the Korea Herald. "The difference is that people here don't acknowledge that the problem even exists."

Buddhist temples, many of them built of wood and with elderly congregations, are easy targets. "They're basically looked after by old ladies and gentlemen," says Frank Tedesco, an American scholar and the author of the Sejong University report. "Very benign, but clay pigeons to the malicious."

These days the Hall of Brilliant Enlightenment has security guards, barbed wire, and an iron gate which closes at 6pm. Fire extinguishers stand outside the halls which have been reconstructed in solid concrete.

"A temple should be a place where people can drop by at any time," says the Venerable Won Song, "and it's hard to create something elegant out of concrete. This is not a Korean temple, and nor is it a Western building. It's just a ridiculous-looking building."