03/19/2014, 00.00
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Jeju Islanders write to the pope, invite him to their island to help peace

Since 2007, residents of this southern island have been fighting the South Korean government over the construction of a military base. Seen as a threat to peace by locals, the base is deemed "crucial" for national defence. An online letter campaign seeks to bring the pontiff to the island when he visits South Korea next august. For the local bishop, theirs is "a cry from the poor".

Jeju (AsiaNews) - Pope Francis' visit to the Korean Peninsula could bring him to Jeju Island, scene of an ongoing tug-of-war between the local population and the government.

Islanders oppose a planned naval base, which they see as a threat to peace and something designed to please the Americans. By contrast, South Korean authorities view it as "vital" for national security.

Although the island is not included in the pope's itinerary, a papal visit would help to calm the situation.

With this in mind, residents have taken their message to the Internet, setting up a website, where people can e-mail Francis to ask him to visit the island and explain why his presence is so important.

"This initiative represents a 'cry from the poor,' said Mgr Peter Kang U-il, bishop of Jeju and president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, "but we cannot ask too much from the pope. His visit is already a milestone for us".

"Holy Father, for the past seven years, every day has been like a war here," writes Yoon Sanh-hyo. "Would you please, help this old man see his village become beautiful and peaceful again. Please visit Gangjeong and shake the hands of those who have been waiting for justice for a long time."

"The project of the naval base has put so many people in jail and forced us to pay fines," writes Lucia Kang Yu. "I do not expect such injustice to disappear with your visit; I only hope that the world can learn about the battle for peace in Gangjeong."

The South Korean government plans to build a base for South Korean and US marines on the island, which is located off the southern coast of the Korean mainland. The original plan was first announced in 1993 when Kim Young-sam was president.

In 2007, the government chose the village of Gangjeong as the site for the base. The local village chief, Yoon Tae-jun, agreed with the decision on 24 April of that year and two days later, a vote was held backing his decision. However, only 87 residents out of more than a thousand cast their ballot.

Since then, islanders and the government have been at loggerhead. Activists have been involved in direct action, chaining themselves to fences. A series of  "Masses for peace," human chains, and other forms of popular protests have taken place in order to slow down the construction of the base, which, however, goes on.

In 2011, two clergymen were jailed for supporting protests; they were later released after a long period of detention. Another protester, a layperson, is instead still in jail but will be released in three weeks time.

A Jesuit priest and a lay Jesuit brother also live in a local village, serving the local Catholic community.

For Bishop Kang, "This must be a land of peace, especially in light of the incidents of 3 April. Bringing the military back to this place means that the meaning of the death of those who have sacrificed for freedom is lost."

There the prelate is referring to a massacre that began on Jeju on 3 April 1948 with fighting lasting until1954.

On that occasion, thousands of people who had organised themselves in armed civilian groups contrary to Seoul's bloody rule and US military, were slaughtered.

Eventually, the dictatorship was overcome and Jeju became a symbol of resistance, thanks also to the Catholic Church.

Located in the Korea Strait, the island has its own autonomous provincial government and is famous for its unspoilt nature and splendid landscapes. In fact, protesters also oppose the naval base to protect its ecology and tourist sector.

For the government, the new US$ 970 million naval base is necessary for national security.

Residents disagree, claiming that it is forward base required by the United States to keep pressure on China and North Korea.


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