Angry ferry families refuse to budge for Pope

August 06, 2014 - 12:00:00 am

SEOUL: Protesting relatives of victims of South Korea’s ferry disaster yesterday vowed to “fight back” if any attempt is made to clear them from a ceremonial plaza in Seoul where Pope Francis will hold a mass next week.

Many family members and their supporters have been camping out for three weeks in Gwanghwamun Square, on which up to one million Catholics are expected to converge on August 16 for an open-air mass by the visiting Pope.

“We will never remove our tents until our demands are met,” Park Yong-Woo, a family member and spokesman for the protesters, said. If police try to expel them, protesters will “resist and fight back,” Park said, adding discussions were being held with the Catholic Church about their presence in the plaza.

The situation is sensitive for authorities. The first visit by a Pope for 25 years is a major event, but the government will be wary of public sensibilities in handling ferry disaster families.

Relatives and their supporters are demanding that parliament pass legislation allowing a full, independent inquiry into the April 16 tragedy that claimed around 300 lives.

The draft law is stuck in National Assembly, with ruling and opposition parties deadlocked over what legal powers any inquiry should be given.

Park said protesters had sent a letter to the Pope, urging his understanding. “Holy Father, please cry with us here together... Please pray for us and protect us from being swept off the square in the name of preparing your mass,” the letter reads.

Around 30,000 policemen are expected to be deployed for the event, which is the religious centrepiece of the Pope’s four-day visit.

The 6,825-tonne Sewol ferry sank off the country’s southwest coast with 476 people on board.  Of them, 325 were students from Danwon High School in Ansan and only 75 escaped alive.

Fifteen Sewol crew members are on trial, including the captain and three senior officers accused of “homicide through wilful negligence”, a charge that can carry the death penalty.