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Buddhists, Christians clash over naming of island tourist sites

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A chapel named after Saint Peter is being used as a tourist rest area along the
A chapel named after Saint Peter is being used as a tourist rest area along the "Miracle Pilgrimage" trail, Sinan County. Courtesy of Sinan County

Sinan County's tourism promotion strategy criticized as biased religiously

By Lee Yeon-woo

In the southwestern fishing and salt farm county of Sinan, in South Jeolla Province, consisting of a total of 1,025 islands, there's a long trail named "Miracle Pilgrimage" that is only revealed when the tide goes out. Stretching over 12 kilometers, tourists can walk on the trail during low tide and enjoy the beautiful scenery of Sinan County's islands by crossing the mudflats.

Created in 2019, the trail has become a reason tourists from outside the county visit the rural islands in the Yellow Sea. The trail attracted 54,000 tourists in 2021 alone. Some call it "Seomtiago," a portmanteau of "Santiago" from the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and "seom," Korean for island.

But the beautiful trail has also become a source of religious dispute between Buddhists and Christians due to its name. The nation's largest Buddhist sect, the Jogye Order, criticized Sinan County's tourist promotion campaign, alleging that the naming of some of its tourist sites favors Christians and thus constitutes religious bias.

The Jogye Order raised questions about whether Sinan County deliberately used Christian terms in the area's branding in an attempt to remake them as sacred Christian sites. Since 2012, Sinan County has promoted itself under the name, the "Angel Islands." The name originates from the geographical character of the county, which consists of over 1,000 islands and islets. As part of its branding campaign, Sinan identified itself as the county of 1,004 islands. The pronunciation of "1,004" in Korean is the same as of "angel;" thus, the county branded itself as the "Angel Islands."

The branding drew criticism from some Buddhist leaders, as they believe terms like "angels" or "pilgrimage" are biblical derivations. They were suspicious of the county's new name, as the actual number of islands and islets is 1,025, not 1,004 as the name claims.

After organizing a task force on the issue in February, the Jogye Order has actively taken measures to rename the tourist site and eliminate sculptures and symbols that evoke Christianity. This April, the Jogye Order accused the site of promoting religious bias to the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. The order also asked for a public apology from the governor of Sinan County.

A chapel named after Saint Jude, part of the
A chapel named after Saint Jude, part of the "Miracle Pilgrimage." Courtesy of Sinan County

In response, Christians organized a public presentation Wednesday where they fired back. They said that Sinan County's branding has nothing to do with the proselytizing of Christianity.

"Sinan County calling itself 'Angel Island' has no relation to missionary work. It refers to the number of islands by excluding several submerged islands during high tide. Angels mean good people nowadays in society and their meaning goes beyond Christianity. I would instead think it's a creative branding tactic to indicate that Sinan County is a place where kind and benevolent people live," Rev. Kim Cheol-young, the secretary-general of the Korea Christian Public Policy Council said.

"The chapels named after the twelve disciples weren't built for worship services. They are just some of the tourist buildings making up 'Seomtiago.' You should draw a line between religious facilities and tourist places," Hwang Jong-whan, the chairman of the Knowledge Sharing Coexistence Network added.

A sculpture of Saint James located along the
A sculpture of Saint James located along the "Miracle Pilgrimage." Courtesy of Sinan County

The Korean Federation of Holiness Churches issued a public statement on the same day and warned the Jogye Order not to overreact. "The words, 'religious bias' and 'religious discrimination,' should not be used recklessly. It is not only difficult to judge whether something constitutes religious bias but it is also prone to trigger conflicts between religions. It also hinders national harmony," the statement said.

They also pointed out that tour programs related to Buddhism receive more financial support than those related to Christianity. "With their logic, government grants to temple stay programs and for the establishment of a Buddhism theme park in Daegu, as well as the permission to collect entrance fees when entering temples, all fall under projects that are biased religiously."

Meanwhile, Sinan County has not responded to the allegations by the Jogye Order. In a media interview, an unnamed county official denied them, saying that the county's tourism promotion strategy has nothing to do with Christianity.


Lee Yeon-woo yanu@koreatimes.co.kr


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