SEOUL: On a sunny afternoon in the second week of Ramadan, hundreds of Muslims gathered at the Seoul Central Mosque in the district of Itaewon for their weekly Friday prayer.
Those who could not fit inside the mosque sat on their prayer mats outside the main prayer hall. Most of the worshippers were immigrants from Southeast and Central Asia.
“I was travelling an hour from Ansan (southwest of Seoul) by train and bus to perform a prayer along with my two children,” Ahn, a Korean Muslim, told Arab News.
“It’s a ritual to come here every Friday afternoon, and the past two weeks have been special as we’ve entered Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic religion.”
Living as a Muslim in South Korea has been tough, and is getting tougher due to Islamophobia, said Ahn, who converted to Islam a decade ago after marrying a Pakistani Muslim.
“Lots of incidents occur allegedly in connection with Islamist extremists and terror groups, and many Korean people just think all Muslims could be associated with them,” she added. “Hatred and prejudice against Muslims still prevail here.”
Park Si-eun, 36, who converted to Islam in 2010, said: “Even some of my family members feel inconvenienced being with me just because I’m Muslim. There are a lot of challenges for Muslims in Korea, and even more for Korean Muslims. Nevertheless, I feel there have been some changes in the public perception of Islam, slowly but surely.”
Islam has a very small presence in South Korea, where Protestantism is dominant. According to the Korea Muslim Federation, the number of Muslims in the country stands at about 150,000, some 0.3 percent of the population. Of them, Korean Muslims account for 35,000.
There are at least 30,000 Protestant churches in the country but only eight mosques, including the Seoul Central Mosque, which was built in 1976 with the help of a large monetary contribution from Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations.
Rahman Lee Ju-hwa, imam at the Seoul Central Mosque, said despite widespread misunderstanding and ignorance about Islam, there is a slow but steady change in perception.
“The 2007 hostage crisis in Afghanistan was a major turning point in the history of Islam in South Korea,” he told Arab News, referring to the kidnapping of 23 South Korean missionaries by members of the Taliban, who executed two of the hostages.
“The incident had many more South Korean people think negatively about Islam. But on the other side, many people were beginning to be curious about the religion and wanted to know it better,” he said.
“The number of Muslims in the country is stagnant, but the public perception and understanding of Islam are getting better, slowly but surely,” he added.
“An increasing number of students visit the Seoul Central Mosque to attend lectures and study the Muslim culture.”
The number of visitors to the mosque peaked at 2,500 last year, a 10-fold increase from a decade ago, he said.
During a visit by Arab News on May 8, a group of middle-school students was touring the mosque.
“We came here for a cultural study class to help students understand different cultures and religions,” said Lee Eun-il, a teacher at Shindong Middle School in Seoul.
“In particular, Islam wasn’t familiar to students and misunderstood by many people. That’s why we came here, to understand it better.”
The imam said: “Social media is an effective tool for providing accurate information on Islam. Wrong information spreads so fast online, but that information can be fixed instantly on social media.”
Park Dong-shin, a South Korean Muslim, runs two YouTube channels — one for the Arabic language and the other for Islam. They have about 10,000 and 50,000 viewers, respectively. He also has a Facebook account with approximately 200,000 followers.
“I started running YouTube channels in 2011 with the goal of providing accurate information on Islam, and they’ve gained popularity fast in recent years thanks to the YouTube boom,” Park, who converted in 2009, told Arab News.
“Many of the viewers post malicious comments insulting Islam and Muslims, but I feel that’s a very normal process of a new culture being mixed in a society. It’s a process of people learning a new culture and religion,” he said.
“I’m super surprised to see a number of Christians join my channels to get to know Islam better, not criticizing Islam,” added Park, who studied the Arabic language and Muslim theology at the Islamic University of Madinah, Saudi Arabia, and subsequently majored in Shariah law at Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
Safiya Kang Na-yeon, a female manager at the Seoul Central Mosque, is an Instagram user with nearly 50,000 followers.
Having converted in 2015, she posts photos and videos of Islamic food, fashion and cultural events, which she said help bridge the gap between Korean and Muslim cultures in a more effective way.
“Youngsters in South Korea show a big interest in hijab fashion and halal food,” she said. “I also post photos related to South Korean culture, such as hanbok, traditional Korean clothing. That helps Muslims understand Korea well.”
Since the 1990s, an increasing number of migrant workers from Muslim countries have been settling in South Korea.
“The image of most Muslim migrants has been improved to an extent due to their hard work and faithfulness,” said Safiya Kang.
“Their children with multicultural backgrounds are growing up, and they’ll be able to play a role in finding a common denominator with Korean people.”
Muslim tourism has become a key growth area for South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy, since the number of Chinese travelers declined in the aftermath of a diplomatic row over the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system in 2017.
The South Korean government has laid out a tourism initiative aimed at attracting 1.2 million Muslim visitors annually.
Last year, 971,649 Muslim tourists visited the country, an 11 percent increase from 865,910 in 2017, according to the Korea Tourism Organization.
Despite efforts to increase halal restaurants, 34 percent of Muslim visitors said food was their biggest inconvenience in South Korea, whose people enjoy pork and alcohol, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the tourism organization.
“The government should address the lack of infrastructure for Muslim tourists, such as halal restaurants, prayer rooms and other Muslim-friendly facilities, which could attract many more Muslim visitors and boost the national economy,” Imam Lee said.
Still, South Korean Muslims pride themselves on keeping their faith in the face of numerous challenges.
“Practicing Islam is such a difficult mission in this country, where our religion is marginalized in many cases,” Safiya Kang said.
“In another sense, I’m proud of keeping the faith in this most challenging of environments. I find peace in Islam.”