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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 March, 2004, 07:32 GMT
Buddhists enter Taiwan fray
By Caroline Gluck
BBC, Taipei

A row has broken out in Taiwan after one of the island's leading religious figures announced he was supporting the opposition candidate in the presidential elections on 20 March.

Wei Chueh, one of four Buddhist masters in Taiwan, called on his followers on Wednesday to support Lien Chan of the former ruling party, the Kuomintang, which has traditionally favoured eventual reunification with the mainland.

But at a news conference on Thursday, a leading Buddhist nun attacked the monk, saying it was wrong for religious leaders to campaign on political issues.

President Chen Shui-bian
President Chen's referendum is a "joke", the monk said

While politicians in Taiwan are often seen at temples across the island trying to drum up support while they are out campaigning, religious leaders have tended to steer clear of politics, refusing to openly endorse any candidate.

So the call by one of Taiwan's main Buddhist masters - openly urging his supporters to back the opposition - has proved controversial.

Wei Chueh joined congregants cheering for Lien Chan and his running mate, James Soong, as they visited his temple in central Taiwan.

He also urged his supporters to boycott an election-day referendum organised by their opponent, current president Chen Shui-bian.

The referendum, which will ask voters if they support new talks with China and if they favour boosting the island's military defences, had become an international joke, said the monk.

But Shih Chao Hwei, a leading nun from the Association of Buddhist Monasteries in Taiwan, hit back at his comments, saying he was twisting the truth to suit his political views.

Religious leaders should not engage in political campaigning, she said.

Supporters of the Buddhist master say he has as many as one million followers in Taiwan and with the election now neck and neck, the votes of such a large group could be crucial.

But other Buddhists have played down the impact of his political calls, saying Buddhist doctrine teaches that people should listen to themselves rather than relying on other figures telling them which way to vote.

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