12/28/2009, 00.00
SOUTH KOREA
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Christmas Mass for Yongsan tragedy victims

by Theresa Kim Hwa-young
On Christmas Day, about a thousand people, Catholics, Buddhists and others, held a Mass in memory of the victims of a fire that broke out on 20 January of this year in downtown Seoul. Five people demonstrating against the forced removal of local residents and a police officer died in the blaze. Those who caused the incident have still not been prosecuted. Police and government are accused of using heavy-handed means to suppress popular dissent and cover up what happened.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – More than a thousand Catholics and Buddhists took part in a special Mass held by the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice (CPAJ) on Christmas Day. They wanted to commemorate the victims of a fire that broke out on 20 January of this year that left six people dead in Seoul’s Yongsan neighbourhood.  The blaze started during clashes between police and demonstrators opposed to the forced removal of residents from an area under redevelopment.  For months, the CPAJ has been calling on the government to shed light on what happened and prosecute the real culprits.

“This Christmas Mass is not the end of our protests,” said Fr Peter Lee Kang, director of the Catholic Urban Poor of Pastoral Committee of Seoul. “We shall continue to celebrate Mass every day in front of the Namildang Building until the truth about the tragedy comes out,” he added.

Since March, the CPAJ has celebrated Mass for the victims. Buddhists, Protestants and human rights activists have joined them in the ceremony.

The tragedy started on 19 January when a group of demonstrators took to the roof of a building in downtown Seoul slated for demolition. They were protesting against the inadequate compensation offered to the tenants to vacate their flats because of redevelopment planned for the area.

The next day, without trying mediation police went to arrest the protesters who had incendiary devices with them. During the scuffle, the roof caught fire and five demonstrators as well as police officer died.

The real causes of the fire are still unknown; however on 28 October, a court sentenced seven of the nine protesters of up to six years in prison for involuntary manslaughter even though prosecutors did not hand over to the court all of their notes from the case. This has raised questions about the role played in the tragedy by police agents and private guards employed by the building’s owners.

In all this while, the victims’ families have not been able to bury their loved ones and still do not know when the bodies will be released from the morgue of Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital.

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