Buddha Drafted in Korea As Talisman for 2002 Cup

SEOUL, South Korea -- Buddhists in flowing gray robes hand out bumper stickers depicting a chubby baby Buddha playing soccer. Worshippers light candles, praying for South Korea to be chosen as host for the World Cup soccer finals in 2002.

Religious fervor has met soccer fever, and South Korea's Buddhists have joined in their nation's pitched battle against Japan to become the 2002 host.

"Buddhism is something serene, a step away from everyday life. But if people see that even Buddhists want the World Cup, it should have a positive effect on our bid," said Lee Sang-kyu, head of planning for the Chogye Order, to which most South Korean Buddhists belong.

Invoking God against enemies is an age-old war tactic, and for some South Koreans, the fierce fighting for the World Cup is an extension of another, earlier war.

Japan ruled Korea as a colony from 1910 until its defeat in World War II in 1945.

For many South Koreans who still hold bitter memories of the colonial days when their nation lived under Japanese rule, the bid is a nothing less than a matter of national pride, a reflection of a fierce desire to give nothing away to the Japanese.

"As Koreans, we need to give our support to the World Cup. And even non-Buddhists will feel more open to Buddhism when they see that Buddhism is supporting this," said Sohn Heun-ja, 54, who regularly attends worship services.

Lee admitted that his order's support of South Korea's World Cup bid has antagonized some faithful but said critics were more angered by the use of the image of Buddha than by the show of support for soccer.

"The commercialism is undesirable," said monk Ahn Jong-chul, a resident scholar at Chung Gak Won seminary of Dongguk University, a Buddhist school.

"But Buddha is like the lotus. It grows from muddy water, but is untainted by it," he said in a philosophical twist.

But if Lee had his way, even the lotus, the ubiquitous symbol of Buddhism, would have been partially replaced at this year's annual Buddhist parade by lanterns shaped like soccer balls.

The parade celebrates the birthday of Buddha birthday, his 2,540th this year.

It featured trucks carrying huge national flags with World Cup logos, as well as a candle-lighting ceremony, during which worshipers lit candles set up in the logo shape.

Lee also had hoped to bring Italian soccer star Roberto Baggio to the Chogye Temple for worship during his stay, but the plan was canceled due to scheduling problems.

Baggio, a Buddhist, came to Seoul ahead of his team, AC Milan, which is scheduled to play an exhibition match with South Korea's national team on the anniversary of Buddha's birth on Friday.

Executive members of FIFA, world soccer's governing body, are to vote on who will host the 2002 World Cup on June 1.