Rival parties trade accusations over priests' remarks

SEOUL, Nov. 26 (Yonhap) -- The ruling Saenuri Party stepped up criticism Tuesday of a group of Catholic priests over their alleged pro-North Korean bias as its main opposition rival claimed the denunciation campaign is an attempt to shift the political focus away from an election meddling scandal.

At issue are remarks that a liberal priest made during Mass held Friday to urge President Park Geun-hye to resign over allegations that state agencies tampered with last year's presidential election with online political postings in favor of her.

The priest, Park Chang-shin, said during the Mass that it was natural for the North to launch a deadly artillery attack on the South's border island of Yeonpyeong in 2010 because the South and the U.S. held military exercises near their sea border. He also discredited a government find that the North torpedoed a South Korean warship in 2010.

The remarks caused an uproar among conservative South Koreans still resenting the two deadly attacks. A total of 50 South Koreans, including two civilians, were killed in the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the warship Cheonan.

On Monday, President Park strongly denounced the remarks as divisive, pledging not to tolerate any attempts to hurt national unity. Prime Minister Chung Hong-won also condemned the remarks as an act of "destroying the Republic of Korea and siding with the enemy."

The priest is a member of the Catholic Priests' Association for Justice, a group of liberal priests known for its efforts to bring democracy to South Korea in the 1980s. The group has since taken stances on many politically sensitive issues, drawing criticism from conservatives that it is ideologically biased.

On Tuesday, the ruling party stepped up attacks on the priests' group.

"Hiding behind religion and with a pro-North Korean and anti-U.S. ideology, they are engaging in anti-government, anti-state activities," Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun, Saenuri's deputy floor spokesman, said during a party meeting.

"It's been a long time since the priests' association became a political group," he said.

Yoon claimed that the association has made the same claims as North Korea and other pro-Pyongyang groups on many issues, such as its opposition to a free trade agreement with the United States and its demand for scrapping the anti-communist National Security Law.

The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) accused the ruling camp of focusing on the blame campaign to divert attention away from its demand for an independent counsel investigation into the alleged state tampering with December's presidential election.

"They are making statements on side and minor matters that are not the main issue as if they are declaring war against an enemy nation. No matter how hard I think, this is an overreaction," said Rep. Jun Byung-hun, the floor leader of the opposition party.

"I cannot help but see this as an attempt to evade a special prosecutor investigation and unite conservatives," he said. "The government, the ruling party and Cheong Wa Dae should think about whether this kind of a narrow-minded attitude is dividing the people and cooling the political situation."

DP leader Kim Han-gil also said he is concerned that President Park's remarks will cause greater division in national unity, claiming the ruling camp has launched an all-out offensive by using "excessive remarks" by an elderly priest as a pretext.

"Putting the blame on some priests will never make the illegal meddling in the presidential election go away," he said.

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