Muslims start to make their presence felt
Still a minority, but Islam gains traction in Korea
Muslims are a tiny minority in South Korea, but their numbers are increasing with a recent influx of foreign workers, who, in turn, spread their religion to native Koreans.
There are now tens of thousands of Korean Muslims, whose challenges include gaining acceptance, as well as finding halal food and getting to prayer services.
Umar Jung, 47, is one of them. He converted to Islam five years ago, inspired by the “pure religious fervor” of Pakistani Muslims working in South Korea.
“I am the only [Korean] Muslim in Jeongeup, where 130,000 people live,” he said.
The food vendor started serving Pakistani migrant workers around 2002, after the 9/11 attacks.
“I thought Muslims equaled terrorists due to the local media’s bias against Islam,” he said. But Jung, who was not religious but was inspired by his Muslim customers’ “sincere religious zeal and peaceful attitude,” started to take an interest in Islam.
“The Muslims I met were different from those depicted by local media,” he said.
Jung converted to Islam in 2008.
“Muslims are the people who practice God’s words in daily life,” he says.
Between 130,000 and 140,000 Muslims currently live in South Korea, according to Jewel Rana, an assistant at the Anyang Mosque, 20 kms south of Seoul.
Of that number, 35,000 are Koreans who converted since the mid-20th century. The others are foreign residents in the country through marriage, for employment or for studies, said Rana who hails from Bangladesh.
"It is not easy for foreign Muslims in Korea to pray five times a day. Most are factory workers, logging more than 12 hours a day," Rana said. “Islam demands a strict prayer life.”
In addition to praying five times a day, Muslims must follow a diet without alcohol, pork, or any meat not slaughtered according to the halal principles.
Jung takes his own food when he goes out, because it is hard to find halal food in Korea, except near the country’s 10 mosques.
Jung also omits two prayers in the daytime because repeated deep bows during prayer could embarrass other Koreans around him.
He doesn’t tell other Koreans he is a Muslim. He hasn’t even told his two sisters, both Protestant, because he is afraid of “their prejudice,” he says.
Choi Young-kil, a professor of Arab Studies in Myongji University in Seoul, said prejudice against Islam stems from a lack of knowledge about the faith.
“The local media’s understanding of Islam is overly Western-centered,” Choi said. “If you want to know about Muslims, the best way is not through the media but by getting to know real Muslims in your community.”
That’s not always easy, though. Jung travels 250 kms every Saturday to participate in prayer services at the Central Mosque in Seoul.
“I find real happiness in meeting Muslim friends and praying with them,” he said.
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