(South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at the presidential Blue House in Seoul June 9, 2011. Credit: Reuters/Jo Yong-Hak)

Many South Koreans concerned about the country’s increasing religious polarisation are haunted by a single image – their president on his knees. While attending a national prayer breakfast in March, President ??Lee Myung-bak knelt to pray at the urging of Christian leaders.

Footage of the event shocked many in this pluralist country, where about half the population professes no particular faith and the remainder is split between Buddhists, Christians and homegrown creeds. The main Buddhist Jogye Order called the scene “unforgiveable,” and even right-leaning media outlets generally supportive of the conservative leader expressed reservations.

The Joongang Ilbo daily in an editorial urged Lee, a devout Protestant and an elder at Seoul’s Somang Church, to keep his beliefs private and avoid provoking public ire. “(The prayer breakfast) convinced people how dangerous the current situation really is,” said Park Gwang-seo, head of the Korea Institute for Religious Freedom, a civic group that works to promote the separation of religion and state. “We’re at a peak as far as the relationship between politics and religion is concerned.”

South Korea’s constitution stipulates that there is no official religion and bars the country’s leaders from elevating one faith above others, but analysts say Lee’s outspoken religious beliefs and strong links with the Christian community have opened the administration to charges of bias.