A cleric’s homily has shaken the political powers, writes Paul Keenan
The concept of the separation of Church and State is being sorely tested in South Korea after a priest’s outspoken comments against the administration of President Park Geun-hye caused a media sensation in the country.
The row was first sparked on November 22 when Fr Park Chang-shin, a priest of the Diocese of Jeonju, used his 40-minute homily to attack the record of the current government and openly called for the resignation of the president. Decrying an alleged lack of real democracy in the country following the December electoral win by Ms Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party, Fr Park gave voice to a belief in some quarters that the country’s secret service was employed at Ms Park’s behest in rigging the presidential election’s outcome. (South Korea’s intelligence chief, Won Sei-hoon, is currently awaiting trial on charges that he ordered a misinformation campaign against President Park’s campaign rivals in 2012. The president has promised transparency and full investigation while denying any part in dirty tricks.)
Timing his homily to coincide with a Mass marking the third anniversary of North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, still an emotive issue for South Koreans, Fr Park further accused the government of seeking to “create an enemy” out of that incident. Pointing out that North Korea had fired on Yeonpyeong only after a US-South Korean military drill fired into the North’s territorial waters, he suggested the North’s reaction was entirely natural.
The sense of outrage within government circles was immediately demonstrated in a call by Saenuri for supporters to protest against enemies of the state. Pointedly, the party urged protestors to make their voices heard at Myeongdong Cathedral in the capital, Seoul. About 700 responded to the call and attempted, on November 26, to force their way into the building as police struggled to hold their line. The cathedral later received an anonymous bomb threat.
At first glance the reactions appear more symbolic than practical; Jeonju diocese is far from the capital and Fr Park does not preach or minister in the city. However, the targeting of the country’s main Catholic cathedral may be a pointed message in itself from an administration which has faced religious ire previously in 2013, again arising from that 2012 election result. In August, a gathering of over 4,000 Catholic priests at Sogang University called on the president to come clean on the election and then, in September, some 5,000 protestors joined priests and nuns in a demonstration in Seoul on the same subject. Significantly, that event was the first time in many decades that the Catholic Church in South Korea backed such a protest.
If these recent events throw a different light on Saenuri’s own actions, there is much to be made too of political pronouncements against Fr Park in the days following his homily.
Having called an emergency meeting to discuss the coverage given to the outspoken cleric, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won condemned the seeming justification of the North’s actions against Yeonpyeong.
“Park Chang-shin may be a priest,” he stated. “But he is first and foremost a citizen of this country. Not only is he parroting the arguments of North Korea by making statements that violate the basic duties of a citizen, he is also overlooking North Korea’s provocative action. We cannot turn a blind eye to this. He must be held responsible for his actions.”
Similarly, from President Park: “Not only has North Korea failed to show contrition for its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, it continues to threaten to turn the Blue House [the presidential residence] into a sea of fire. National security cannot be preserved through cutting-edge weaponry alone. Even more important is the patriotism and the unity of the people.”
Notably, the posturing on national security and loyalty was not matched by any talk of that other substantive issue of the homily, the alleged rigging of the December 2012 election, and only Fr Park’s ‘seditious’ words on Yeonpyeong form the basis of the criminal investigation now launched against him.
Amid the tense atmosphere now existing, an attempt to placate both sides fell to Archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of Seoul.
Stating firmly that “it is not the role of the pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political structuring and organisation of social life”, he simultaneously asserted that “we Christians cannot play the role of Pilate, washing our hands. We must be involved in politics”.
For his part, Fr Park seeks no middle ground. “I served in the military,” he pointed out. “I’m a citizen of this country. I want the Republic of Korea to be a good country, a country where we work together and prosper.”