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Clergy, Labor Unions Add Layers to South Korea's Beef Protests

South Korean religious groups have temporarily taken over leadership of protests against the resumption of American beef imports, calling for peace and police restraint. At the same time, South Korea's biggest labor union group has begun a strike and says its members will join protesters in the streets. VOA's Kurt Achin has more from Seoul.

South Korean protests against U.S. beef imports have been an almost nightly fixture in Seoul for some two months now - but some of this week's gatherings seemed a lot like a church service.

Protesters - some of them wearing white veils customary among South Korean Catholics - sang "peace, peace, because I serve God."

Religious leaders have been at the forefront of the the protests, this week, lacing the gatherings heavily with symbols of worship. Their stewardship of the demonstrations is expected to end Friday, with a gathering presided over by Buddhist leaders.

Many South Koreans believe U.S. beef is tainted with the brain-consuming mad cow disease, despite a relative lack of hard scientific data. The protests have dwindled in numbers, but become more physical in recent weeks. Last weekend, hundreds of South Koreans were injured in clashes with police connected to the beef protests.

Religious leaders accuse police of using excessive force. They are invoking their public role to call for restraint. Some of them are openly backing the protesters, while others use religious language implying support.

A Catholic priest called upon Jesus Christ to heal those who were hurt and to give everyone gathered the strength to fight against injustice.

Separately, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, began a partial nationwide strike, Wednesday, in solidarity with the beef protesters.

The group said more than 130,000 workers would walk off the job, including about 30,000 union members employed by Hyundai Motors.

KCTU President Lee Seok-heang says members are exercising a democratic right, in service of the public.

He says the strikers want to preserve public health, which he calls a key ingredient for production. He says they also want to protect children from what he describes as the "risk" of American beef.

Lee says thousands of labor union workers will travel to Seoul, later this week, to join several days of anti-government protests over the U.S. beef issue.

Lee downplays warnings from leaders and economists that ongoing unrest risks damaging South Korea's long term economic prospects. South Korea's prime minister said this week the protests are discouraging investment and damaging South Korea's trade credibility.

South Korea's parliament remains paralyzed by a boycott led by political opponents of President Lee Myung-bak, who made the April deal to resume American beef imports.

Despite opposition, U.S. beef did go back on sale this week here in South Korea after clearing final legal loopholes, last month. One of the few retailers daring enough to advertise the beef says sales are brisk- with 400 kilograms leaving the shop since Tuesday.