Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Foreigners in Religious Dialogue

Recently, a group of foreign religious leaders got together to discuss religious and cultural issues in Korea. The group of more than 10 included an Italian Catholic priest, a German Lutheran minister, a Muslim missionary from Turkey, a Buddhist monk from India, and a Won Buddhist Russian academic.
The Kyunghyang newspaper reported on the meeting, the first of its kind, sponsored by the Korea Dialogue Academy.

The Catholic priest, living in Korea as a missionary for over 20 years, said he felt that in religious matters the proper forms are more important than the  contents. He went on to say that Koreans change religions easily: Catholic to Protestant, Protestant to Catholic, Buddhist to Catholic, Catholic to Buddhist.  From the outside it appears that all is harmonious in the religious world. However, that is not the case, and can be easily seen in the context of the family, especially concerning marriages and family rites. There is also pressure at times to convert to or from a religion by family members. And the dialogue between religions can sometimes by contentious, and to avoid this possibility there is often fear of  going too deeply into any meaningful discussion.
The Russian Won Buddhist academic had a counter argument, believing that changing one's religion is a positive development. The frequent changing of religions gives support, he said, to the unimportance of dogma in today's society, and points to the current vitality of religion. On the other hand, the Muslim   missionary said that Muslim Turks will say they are, first, believers of Islam and then Turks, second. Obviously, their religion is not taken lightly.
The Buddhist from India said that a novice monk in India is required to give up all material possessions, while in Korea a monk takes his money with him;  money in Korea, he said, is the second Buddha. The reason is that the welfare of Buddhist monks in Korea is very poor. They have to take care of their hospital expenses and even buy their clothing, which requires at times having to work part-time.

A Polish sister counseling foreign workers said the workers are most frequently asked why they came to Korea, adding that the Korean like to make distinctions.  A Nepalese  Won Buddhist mentioned how a foreign woman worker was refused entrance to a bathhouse. She also criticized the discrimination towards the foreign workers in Korea.
The group meeting of foreign religious leaders in Korea was praised for providing a forum where cultural and religious issues could be discussed freely. It was a meeting that would be difficult to find in other countries. A priest from  Kwangju said the discussion took place in a peaceful atmosphere.  The missionary from Turkey said he disagrees with those who say Islam is not open to dialogue, maintaining that Islam is a religion that prides itself on its openness.
There is in formal meetings of religions a desire not to offend, which makes the dialogue very self-conscious. Easier than dialoguing about religion is discussing cultural differences This first attempt to take up religious issues, however, is a sign that many want to see more in-depth discussions about the religious differences that separate us. More understanding of these differences will help to break down some of the walls that now separate us in this crucial area of life, enabling the human family to move closer together.                                                                                                                                             

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