SEOUL--A monk here is leading a petition to hand back an ancient Buddhist statue to Japan that was stolen by a South Korean ring, fighting a widespread view that the perpetrators of the theft are heroes.
The monk has been joined by a former "comfort woman" who was forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during World War II, a lawyer and others.
The group held a news conference April 1 to appeal for the stolen bronze statue of a standing Tathagata Buddha from Kaijinjinja shrine in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, to be returned to Japan as soon as possible.
The group has also sent a petition to the Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea.
According to the board of education in Tsushima, the stolen statue is designated an important cultural property by the Japanese government. It is in the style of the Unified Silla period from the eighth century.
The statue was stolen in October, along with a seated statue of the Kanzeon Bodhisattva, designated a tangible cultural property by Nagasaki Prefecture. The latter was swiped from Kannonji temple in Tsushima.
The statues were seized from the crime ring by the South Korean judicial authorities and are now being kept by the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage in Daejeon.
Hyemun, a 40-year-old monk, asked at the news conference how the public can possibly believe the statues originally belonged to South Korea without recognizing that stealing is a crime.
Hyemun has previously campaigned for the return of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) books held by Japan.
"Justifying a crime goes against the values of Buddhism," he said. "The statue of the Tathagata Buddha should be returned to Japan without conditions."
He also expressed concern about a public perception on the Internet and social media that members of the crime ring are heroes.
With regard to the statue of the Kanzeon Bodhisattva, a local court ordered the South Korean government not to hand it over to Japan.
Hyemun said that (how to deal with this statue) "should be determined carefully."
"The two statues are properties confiscated from the same crime, so we will determine how to handle them simultaneously," said an official of the Cultural Heritage Administration.
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