08/09/2004, 00.00
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Religious leaders pray for the abolition of the death penalty

Seoul (AsiaNews/UCAN) – South Korea's religious leaders urged believers to vigorously oppose the death sentence for a recently-arrested serial killer. They did so on August 5 at Myongdong Cathedral in Seoul.  Catholic, Protestant and Won Buddhist leaders gathered together in an inter-faith ceremony for death row inmates as well as victims and their families.

About a hundred people, mostly Catholic, added a line to their prayers urging all to move "from a culture of hatred and vengeance to a practice of love and compassion".

Such actions are an attempt to stem a rising public tide in favour of the death penalty, which two recent tragic news stories did nothing to stop.

The first one is about Yoo Young-chul, a 33-year-old man charged by the police with 21 counts of murder. Arrested on July 15 he is accused of having gone on a killing spree beginning in September 2003 during which he murdered mostly women working in strip-bars.

The second one concerns Lee Hak-man, a 35-year-old man who, on August 1, knifed to death two police officers trying to arrest him after complaints from his former girlfriend.

During the Cathedral mass, Father Thomas Lee Young-woo, president of the Social Correction Apostolate Committee of the Archdiocese of Seoul, acknowledged that such crimes are behind the surge in support for the death penalty. However, "the death penalty," he warned, "is not a solution if for no other reason that such heinous crimes are rare." He went further and suggested that criminals do not bear all the responsibility. "In our society," Father Lee insisted, "so-called criminals are isolated and often treated unjustly and unfairly. We should be more aware of the seriousness of the problem and try to solve it together."

On August 1, Chosun Ilbo, a national newspaper, published the results of a survey indicatingthat for 66% of the 700 respondents "the death penalty was necessary".  Similarly, the survey showed that support for the death penalty rose over the last ten years.

Crimes such as those of Yoo Young-chul and Lee Hak-man have even had the effect of changing the minds of some death penalty opponents.  According to Father Lee, "this is another sign that people are unaware of the enormity of the death sentence."

Church knows full well that "even among Catholics attitudes are hardening. Still, the situation should be seen as both a challenge and an opportunity for the abolitionist movement because more and more people are trying to understand why someone could do such horrible things."

During the prayer meeting that followed the mass at Myongdong Cathedral, Reverend Mun Jang-sik openly spoke of the 70 executions he attended since 1983. According to him, "as it was later revealed, many of those who were executed were innocent."

At the end of the rally religious leaders released a document in which they reiterated that the death penalty was nothing but "an institutionalised form of murder" carried out in the name of a law and judicial system that deny the right to life. They repeated their demand that the death penalty be replaced by life sentences. They also expressed the hope that in the next session of South Korea's National Assembly a bill abolishing the death penalty would be introduced.

There are currently 58 inmates on death row in South Korea's prisons.

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