Seoul gay pride organisers vow to defy police ban

Seoul (AFP) - Organisers of South Korea's annual gay pride festival vowed Thursday to push ahead with a planned parade in downtown Seoul, despite a police ban and protests from conservative Christian groups.

More than 20,000 people had been expected to take part in the street parade on June 28 at the end of the Korea Queer Festival that kicks off next Tuesday.

But there was fervent and vocal opposition from conservative Christian groups, and police last week banned the march, citing concerns over public safety and traffic disruption.

Gay and transgender Koreans live largely under the radar in a country that remains deeply conservative about matters of sexual identity and where many still regard homosexuality as a foreign phenomenon.

Gay rights activists say some progress has been made in recent years, but the police ban on the parade is the first since the annual Queer Festival began 15 years ago.

Woo Ji-Young, executive director of the festival's organising committee, accused the police of caving in to pressure from conservative Christians.

-- Parade 'will go on' --

"The police should protect the rights of free expression, rather than siding with those trying to suppress it," Woo told AFP.

"The parade will go on whether the police ban it or not," Woo said, while adding that activists would continue to press for the police decision to be reversed.

Violating laws on public rallies can draw a fine of up to two million won ($1,800) or even a jail term of up to two years, but Woo said the organisers were willing to take the risk.

The annual parade has in recent years attracted a growing number of participants -- but also an equally swelling crowd of critics.

Last year, Christian activists disrupted the march by lying down in the street, and this time around they tried in advance to block the event by filing competing applications for the same dates and venues.

Woo said the organisers had been forced to switch venues several times.

"Now the police ban quashes the right for sexual minorities to make their voices heard ... and encourages certain groups to escalate their hatred and violence targeting us," the organising committee said in a statement.

-- Powerful Christian lobby --

Five major Protestant groups, including the Christian Council of Korea (CCK), have urged Seoul to ban the festival in its entirety, arguing that it encourages homosexuality and would contribute to the spread of AIDS.

"We will not stand blindly by when our social values are being threatened and the ... lives of our children are at risk," they said in a joint statement this week.

Bodies like the CCK -- an alliance of churches that claims to represent around 12 million Christians -- wield significant social and political influence in the country.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-Soon, a former liberal activist, was last year forced to dump a proposed city human rights charter, which included protections for sexual minorities, after a storm of criticism from the same Christian groups.

Since then, a handful of Christian activists have become a near daily fixture in front of City Hall, singing songs and chanting slogans that label Park as the "mayor of Sodom."

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